The former Secretary-General of the United Nations, the late Kofi Annan, once said: “No one is born a good citizen; no nation is born a democracy. Rather, both are processes that continue to evolve over a lifetime. Young people must be included from birth. A society that cuts itself off from its youth severs its lifeline; it is condemned to bleed to death”.
Young people are a significant demographic that must be involved in all aspects of societal existence and youth participation in electoral processes is an important aspect of a thriving democracy. Statistically, young people between the ages of 18 and 35 constitute a third of the population in South Africa, about 17.84 million people.
In the past decade, youth participation in politics has dwindled and remained elusive for a couple of reasons. First, the political participation of young people has not been extended beyond an electoral cycle. As a result, after an election, young people are often forgotten by political parties and seldom included in any decision-making and development planning processes, even in the parties to which they belong.
To this extent, young people are often perceived as a “voting bloc” useful for pre-election campaigning and during voting exercises. Post-election involvement is rare and where it happens, it is often tokenism, almost like an afterthought. Second, youth participation in politics has been reduced to a cliché. It feels good to claim young people are included in development and political processes when the reality is the opposite.
Sadly, the effect of this cliché is that it positions young people as a “problem to be solved” by government and society in general rather than an important societal constituent that deserves respect and recognition. The recent protests led by young people seeking opportunities to enrol in tertiary institutions are testament to a society that keeps failing them, socioeconomically and politically, and in the process it creates an industry of the “unemployed”, consequently eroding their potential and weakening their capabilities to engage in the formal economy actively and meaningfully, among other aspects.
Third, due to the above two reasons, the relationship between young people, political parties and the state at its various levels of governance is strained. Unfortunately, the strain has resulted in a toxic political relationship, often confrontational, characterised by cynicism and mistrust.
Fourth, there is a general societal misunderstanding of the distinction between youth political participation and political participation in general. There is abundant empirical evidence that suggests that the participation of young people in formal, institutionalised political processes is relatively low compared with older citizens globally. For instance, data on voter turnout from various countries show that fewer young people participate in a civic process such as voting than older citizens. Similar evidence is seen in membership and leadership positions in political parties and legislatures.
Often the young participate in informal political processes such as activism, protests and campaigns that are important to them. Pragmatically, if young people perceive political participation as inaccessible and less attractive for them, it might shape their attitudes for life and eventually negatively affect a nations’ political culture for a long time. Participation is a democratic right and young people deserve to be included meaningfully in all political processes of a nation.
To increase youth participation in politics, a healthy political culture must be created by all stakeholders — government, political parties, citizen interest groups and civil society in general. So, then what is a “healthy political culture”? Broadly speaking, a healthy political culture is one that is organised around a set of shared values, beliefs, opinions and ideas, where freedom of expression is encouraged and every voice matters. Stated differently, a healthy political culture does not coerce, indoctrinate, or suppress voices, rather it embraces, welcomes and respects divergent opinions and beliefs.
The starting point is to harness courage in listening to young people, understanding their vision, embracing their ideas and aspirations, involving them in articulating and designing youth-centred interventions, working with them as partners and drivers of change, that speaks to their aspirations and vision.
In creating and fostering a healthy political culture that is sensitive to their aspirations and lived realities, the state, political parties, labour and civil society must work together towards creating a youth-friendly environment that facilitates active and genuine involvement of young people in all processes that inform development at all levels of society. This collective collaboration implies that decisive actions must be taken to eliminate every hurdle to facilitate the co-creation of a democratic political culture that supports the active participation of young people in politics.
Moreover, civil society organisations need to co-develop targeted civic education programmes with young people so that the interventions can provide the requisite capabilities at both individual and organisational levels to support their potential to drive change in society. Practically, this means co-designing interventions that reflect the priorities of youth participating in it.
Additionally, it is imperative for civil society organisations to provide training opportunities towards building individual and collective capacities to articulate problems as well as identifying solutions. Moreover, work in a multi-party setting provides an opportunity for young people to engage with political leaders and collaborate in problem-solving. In such settings, young people gain the necessary skills such as negotiation, advocacy and mediation while at the same time establishing the buy-in of political leaders, taking time to address any concerns or objections towards collaboration on any interventions.
Political parties need to support the development of strong party youth wings that can influence party policy development and leadership selection. It is in such structures that young people experience decision-making processes and develop essential political strategies and communication skills, all of which are instrumental for their growth. Moreover, these structures provide opportunities for inter-generational mentorship, where senior party members may act as champions and mentors to the newer younger generation.
With the right organisational support from all political parties, it is possible to initiate platforms such as inter-party youth forums where youth representatives of the different political parties participate in co-designing a multi-party youth forum to advocate on certain broader societal issues such as youth unemployment, a collective towards influencing policy and political decisions on these issues. Such initiatives can only happen if there is a healthy political culture in the country.
Fostering a healthy political culture that supports active youth political participation begins with a recognition that young people are active shapers of meaningful politics and development processes in society. Such a culture provides an environment that would facilitate their active participation in politics and strengthen their advocacy efforts towards a better society for their generation and those to come after them.
Unless such bold actions are taken by all key actors — the state, political parties, labour, and civil society — youth apathy will continue unabated, which is detrimental to our democracy and the future of South Africa. DM
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