In South Africa, we often swing wildly between unbridled self-confidence and undue pessimism, don’t we? The prosaic truth is that South Africa holds the power to write its destiny based on the decisions that we, the people of South Africa, make.
Arising from this is a big global question with big local consequences: Why don’t young people turn up to vote in large numbers? This was the main issue on my mind this weekend when I visited registration stations, among them with DA leader Mmusi Maimane.
A few years ago The Economist surmised that “perhaps the most depressing explanation is simply that in many places, young people do not feel that there is anyone worth voting for”. What is certain, though, is that South Africa is afflicted with a democratic deficit that affects our young people worst of all. The democratic deficit is a political science term coined to explain the gap between European citizens and the institutions of the European Union. The term applies so perfectly to South Africa because there is an ever bigger and increasing gap here between the potential electoral voting bloc and the democratic institutions that are voted for. Its roots lie in a government that abuses the trust of its voters, yet still appeals to them along divided lines, with little to offer.
That’s why from civil society — as distinct from party-political campaigning — voter education is important. Surveys show voters in consolidated democracies treat mid-term, local and supranational elections as an opportunity to give the government a bloody nose. This explains why, for instance, British voters have ended up with a costly “In or Out” EU referendum.
Likewise, can those who stay away from elections, despite being eligible, expect to give the government a bloody nose? The city council is the closest level of government to the citizen, and the only directly elected governors, so it can’t be that by not having a say any voter can be taking a stand against the government of the day.
The demographic context that shapes South Africa’s electoral landscape explains why the problem is magnified in our unconsolidated democracy. Historically, youth voting has never been high anywhere, but its effect is particularly felt here, in a country with a large youth bulge.
Only 59% of the potential youth voting bloc actually voted on the day of the election in 2014. Four in 10 young people chose not to vote. It is moot which parties these disenfranchised young people might have voted for — or if they would have drawn a line through the ballot paper and written “none of the above”. The point is that they did not have sufficient faith in the democratic process to represent their interests through the ballot box. The democratic process today would certainly be more dynamic, fluid, plural and responsive if they had.
Arising from this, history shows us that inspirational and transformational leaders like Nelson Mandela are few and far between. In the South African context, as I’ve argued recently in Daily Maverick, we need to shake off our addiction to “saviour leaders” and energise our youth base to exercise collective leadership.
Yes, when charismatic politicians do appear, they sometimes energise the youth vote — up to a point. President Barack Obama would not have been elected in 2008 and 2012 had it not been for a very high youth turnout for the Democrats. How he did so through sophisticated youth mobilisation and targeting minorities is well documented. However, these two elections were the exception rather than the rule.
Such leaders’ support also tends to be broad-based rather than deep — as is borne out by the unlikely rise of Donald Trump, who is opposed to everything Mr Obama stands for. The point is that that particular electoral system remains as unresponsive and as gridlocked as any time over the last century.
This phenomenon points to an uncodified cartel between political elites everywhere — just like airlines practice. Many politicos believe most political parties, in most elections, in most places, pursue a minimalist strategy to win over older people — “the base”, to quote George W Bush’s dark lord, Karl Rove, in 2004 — who are more likely to vote however bad the candidates are. This applies to South African presidential leadership. Here, despite President Jacob Zuma’s low personal approval ratings prior to the 2014 election, ANC strategists confidently believed they could rely on an irreducible core base to win. So it proved, albeit with just over a third of the potential electoral base.
This is the dangerous rub. Arising from established political parties’ modus operandi to mobilise older voters is something far more pernicious: in doing so, they overtly demobilise younger voters, and delegitimise their concerns. It perfectly suits the ANC government that the arc of national leadership bends towards predictability and safety, not themes of audacity and change.
That’s why we, as a nation, need to reimagine youth voting as the foundation of active citizenship. This can only be achieved through a revived civil society which, naturally, is closest to the local sphere of government. Voting, seen through this lens, is therefore refocused as a trigger of active participation in the life of the nation.
It’s a hard truth to swallow, but, as Thomas Jefferson said; voters — especially those who choose not to vote — get the government they deserve. Let’s take this one step further in terms of the counterfactual: if ANC members knew that their mandate was derived from a much bigger youth vote to whom they were accountable, they might well have voted Minister Blade Nzimande out, and brought about greater change in how our universities are run and subsidised. They may well have voted to remove President Zuma in the no-confidence motion tabled by Mr Maimane. But when you only have to massage one third of the potential electorate — the base — you can afford to play safe.
It doesn’t have to be like this.
Young people tend to be more open-minded and hopeful than mature voters, but are turned off by negative and cynical campaigning. That’s why we, the Democratic Alliance, take a different view of these local government elections. Although differential voting tends to benefit the opposition, we have a larger and energising vision to break the gridlock that strangles our politics. We are offering young people something worth voting for to overcome the ANC’s cynicism.
If young people want to metaphorically drive a stake through a system that they feel is loaded against them, every eligible young voter should register to vote in the next registration drive, and then exercise the responsibility of turning up to vote on election day.
Voting is the only way. The youth have the power to be the drivers of change through local governments where frontline delivery takes place. DM