Maverick Citizen

SA YOUTH OP-ED

Bringing South African youth on board for the 2024 elections is everyone’s critical responsibility

Bringing South African youth on board for the 2024 elections is everyone’s critical responsibility
Tebogo Suping, executive director of a youth network called ACTIVATE! Change Drivers. (Photo: Supplied)

In order to ensure youth participation in the 2024 South African general election, people from all walks of life need to invest time and resources in the inclusion of young people in democratic processes.

As the South African electorate approaches its seventh democratic election next year, much has been said about what is being touted as a watershed moment. Political players have begun electioneering, albeit covertly, with many an analyst, activist and opposition leader boldly pronouncing that “2024 is our 1994”.

With that said, we find ourselves in a precarious situation where there are currently an alarming number of young people who abstain from participating in or are disinterested in elections, an issue that has been stressed down the years. This is not something we should simply leave at a diagnosis of “youth voter apathy”.

This challenge requires us, as a society, to find time and space to introspect about the past 30 years of democratic rule in our country and where we find ourselves today, and allow for the diverse and divergent views and lived experiences of all to be considered.

It has thus become our national task to encourage the youth to play a key role in steering the country’s future, especially through electoral processes. This is not my view alone — 71% of the adult populace agreed that it is imperative for the youth to take the lead in voting, according to a survey conducted by the South African Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) on youth voter participation post the 2021 local government elections.

Yet there are many critical issues plaguing our growing democracy which serve as a huge deterrent when it comes to youth participation in both political and democratic processes.

Young people continue to bear the brunt of the state’s failures to create a conducive environment and adequate spaces for them to thrive. Over and above high unemployment rates, there is the challenge of socioeconomic inequality, where almost half of the South African population (47%) are reliant on social grants for survival. This is a hefty burden placed on the bent shoulders of the current generation.

Statistics further show that young people aged 15 to 24 and 25 t0 34 are the most vulnerable in the South African labour market, with the unemployment rate in these age groups reaching 61% and 39.9%, respectively, in 2022, according to Afrika Tikkun Services. This is among the highest unemployment rates in the world, and this has been the case for South Africa for over a decade.

More alarming, though, is that over a third of young people aged 15 to 24 years (3.5 million people) are currently not in employment, education or training, with most coming from disadvantaged areas, including rural communities, where opportunities for employment are few and far between.

Not only that, but these people, and more, rely on the government for schooling and education, safety, healthcare and other basic amenities. This demonstrates that however many strides have been made in uplifting the standard of living for the poor, it has not nearly been enough. In fact, one might say that we are fast becoming a nation of state dependents, with a youth population of grant-seekers. 

Nation in crisis

Moreover, we have a policing system that is becoming dysfunctional, with a healthcare system operating in a failing state — where pregnant women have been compelled to stage a protest against sleeping on the hospital floor due to a shortage of beds, and young children still fall victim to the indignity of dying in pit toilets. South Africa finds itself at its lowest moment post the first democratic elections of 1994. Those who are brave enough to be honest would say that South Africa is a country in crisis!

And the situation that will likely arise from these circumstances is a catastrophic and socially explosive one, needing urgent attention and intervention.

So, what is to be done, you may ask?

This beautiful nation of ours and its people are in dire straits, and the change we seek will not take place by way of magic, but requires all of us as South Africans — particularly the youth, who make up much of the country’s population — to stand up and play a part in building a democratic culture where all voices are heard, all hands are on deck and all hearts strive for the creation of hope.

While I may not have all the answers to this complex question, I believe that one way of responding to this crisis is for all of us to decide what personal gains we are willing to give up for the greater good, and what part we are prepared to play in actively participating in democratic processes before, during and after elections. This must include encouraging those within our reach and scope of influence to do the same.

It is important that we all take a stand for that which matters, and speak up against that which no longer serves us and our collective interests. We need to demand more from all our public representatives; and our votes combined have the power to make that very clear.

Make your mark, make the change

At ACTIVATE! Change Drivers, we are playing our part in promoting the involvement of the youth in democratic decision-making. We have devised a strategy of activating the youth and encouraging them to stand up and be counted among those who are dedicated to making South Africa prosper again. 

Our strategy consists of making civic education accessible at grassroots level and conducting community activations — three of which we have already executed in Kagiso, Gauteng, on 3 June, Ntuzuma, KZN, on 16 June and Lenyenye, Limpopo, on 29 June. These efforts have been greatly appreciated by the young participants. The work is made possible through strategic collaborations with our partners, including the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP SA) and the IEC, to engage and upskill young people on voter education and democratic processes, while encouraging them to register to vote in the upcoming 2024 elections.

ACTIVATE! Change Drivers is a nonprofit organisation with a youth network of more than 4,300 Youth Active Citizens (activators) with the willingness and growing capacity to lead and drive change for the public good across South Africa. Activators are between the ages of 18 and 35, mostly from marginalised communities.

Our role is to connect and continuously capacitate these young people who display leadership potential and the drive to address societal challenges from grassroots to national levels.

Activators possess the desire to initiate innovative and creative solutions that can reshape our society. At their core is a shared purpose — commitment and responsibility to forge a better, more just South Africa for all, including themselves, through various individual and collective campaigns, as well as community initiatives and engagements that speak to issues that affect them. This network also comprises those who are highly active in making contributions towards the drafting and implementation of public policy across various focus areas, including those who are either public servants or local councillors representing various political parties.

The network cuts across race, gender, class, geography, education and political divides, which places it in the prime position to become influential across communities and contribute towards addressing the diverse needs of the country, and in particular its youth.

But what is this democracy that we speak of?

I am of the belief that democracy is a slow process requiring careful consideration and all our efforts in its safeguarding. It is a pathway towards the attainment of sustainable development and not a destination. It is a set of principles by which we can be led, and through which we can hold our elected representatives to account.

Democracy serves as a subset of values and standards that we need to engage with continuously. Because when in the wrong hands, democracy can be deemed ineffective and non-representative by those at the bottom of the ladder. This outcry requires us to pay careful attention to at all levels and spheres of society to ensure that no one is left behind.

It is therefore necessary for South Africans of all ages, races and socioeconomic backgrounds to cast aside that which divides us and focus on what is needed… electing a government that we can hold accountable in upholding the rule of law.

It is important that we take young people with us in reshaping political culture in South Africa and the region. It is a feat that requires a deliberate effort to place democracy where it belongs — at the heart of the people, by the people.

The responsibility then lies with us all, from all sectors of society, to place our collective resources in the continuous capacitating of young people, with their vast potential to lead the charge in building a brighter future for South Africa.

It is in the presence of our inaction that things can and will get worse. And that absolutely cannot be the ending of our story. DM

Tebogo Suping is the executive director for youth network ACTIVATE! Change Drivers. She has extensive experience in strategy development, corporate social investment, facilitation, civic education and training. 

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