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Opinionista

Mobilising young voters is key to revitalising democracy in South Africa

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Professor Letlhokwa George Mpedi is the Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Johannesburg.

There are more than 27.79 million eligible voters in South Africa, the highest number to date. Of these, the 18-to-39 age band accounts for 42%, or 11.7 million voters.

An integral part of the democratic process is public participation. As the preamble to our Constitution reads: “We the people of South Africa…” When we delve into this, it really entails that we, the people, have power and political agency.

This looks like citizen involvement, engagement and empowerment through voting, town hall meetings or other public forums. This speaks to the very principles of a government by the people and reinforces the democratic ideas of equality, freedom and self-governance.

This year is seminal in our country’s history. It is our 30th year of democracy and marks the seventh democratic election. For a country with a complex and fragmented past, this is significant. The transition from apartheid to democracy created a system of inclusive governance and civil liberties.

The Community of Democracies asserts that “increasing young people’s civic engagement and political participation is crucial to build inclusive societies and strong democratic institutions”. As we prepare for the 29 May elections, it is essential to remember the strength the youth hold – and their role. Their fight for democracy is an intrinsic part of our country’s history.

Before 1994, young people were instrumental in sustaining the anti-apartheid Struggle within South Africa and on the international stage. Their courage, determination and resilience helped to bring about the eventual downfall of apartheid and saw the establishment of a democratic South Africa.

To refer back to the Community of Democracies, “we must embrace the youth as responsible citizens and prepare them to lead their societies in accordance with universal human rights values”. Betwixt and between remembering our past and looking towards a brighter future, platforms that enable civic engagement are vital for not only inspiring our youth but galvanising them towards action in the democratic process.

With fewer than half of eligible voters participating in the 2019 elections, scrutiny now falls on the effectiveness of South African elections in fulfilling their roles of sanctioning and representation.

Nevertheless, there is a glaring lack of youth participation when considering the electoral process. In 2019, when the last national elections were held, there was a record 26.7 million registered voters, yet there was also an apparent decrease in voter turnout. Only 17.6 million actively participated in the elections, indicating an 8% decrease from the previous elections. This represented only 49% of the voting population.

This was the first time the voter turnout was below 50% in democratic South Africa. Globally, there has been a downward trend in voter turnout, and South Africa is no exception. Collette Schulz-Herzenberg argues that voter turnout is a critical gauge of a democracy’s vitality and robustness. A high turnout indicates an engaged and enthusiastic electorate, while a low turnout suggests apathy and distrust in the political process.

South Africa has witnessed a concerning decline in voter participation, raising questions about civic engagement, citizen involvement and levels of apathy and mistrust in its democratic politics. With fewer than half of eligible voters participating in the 2019 elections, scrutiny now falls on the effectiveness of South African elections in fulfilling their roles of sanctioning and representation.

According to a study into low voter turnout by Nnaemeka Ohamadike and Monique Bennet, South African males and youth below 35 exhibited the lowest turnout levels. This is concerning when you consider that, according to Statistics South Africa, almost 65% of the population is made up of individuals in the 15-to-34 category, which is considered the youth.

Read more in Daily Maverick: 2024 elections

Duncan Scott et al make an important point: “South Africans’ voting patterns provide a focal point for future research into the perceived legitimacy of the political system itself.” There is thus an argument to be made for political and civic education.

As the elections loom, it is crucial to consider the current numbers. According to the Electoral Commission of South Africa there are more than 27.79 million eligible voters, the highest number to date. Of these, the 18-to-39 age band accounts for 42%, or 11.7 million voters.

Amid these numbers lies a fundamental imperative: participation. This is the very essence of democracy. It is crucial that each eligible voter exercises their democratic right and responsibility by showing up at the polls. By doing so, citizens can actively contribute to shaping the future direction of our nation.

Every vote cast carries weight and significance, serving as a tangible expression of one’s voice and choice in the democratic process. What is important is that we show up. DM

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