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Why are most of South Africa’s young people politically apathetic and unlikely to vote?


Sabelo Mpisi is a Visiting Research Fellow in the Youth African Research Fellowship (YARF) at the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC), located within the Inclusive Economic Development unit (IED). He has a Master’s degree in Social Anthropology from the University of Cape Town (UCT).

The youth’s voice – a voice that should shape the future – is increasingly silenced by disillusionment and resignation. A generation stands at a crossroads, perceiving their socioeconomic plight and ambitions as either overlooked or mismanaged by those at the helm.

South Africa grapples with a stark reality: a burgeoning youth population mired in unemployment, with figures soaring to a staggering 45.5% in early 2024. This alarming statistic, released by Statistics South Africa, paints a picture of stagnation and unfulfilled promises despite the nation’s three-decade journey through democratic governance.

The echoes of 1994’s pledges of equality and access haunt the current young generation, who find their socioeconomic landscape unchanged from that of their ancestors and parents.

The plight of university graduates struggling to secure formal employment epitomises this harsh reality. The informal sector, which absorbs 90% of the youth labour force, offers little stability and only provides precarious employment opportunities that do not enhance future job prospects.

Criticism mounts against the incumbent administration, which, after 30 years at the helm, stands accused of failing to catalyse meaningful socioeconomic reform.

As general elections loom, one would have anticipated a surge of targeted, impactful campaign strategies from political factions, particularly the ruling ANC.

Yet, young people’s disillusionment echoes across social media platforms, with pressing questions left unanswered: “Which party deserves my vote?” “Why should I continue to support the ANC when tangible benefits elude me?” “Can any party truly champion the youth amid endemic corruption and self-interest?”

These pressing inquiries, against the backdrop of young South Africans facing daunting socioeconomic hurdles, underscore a profound disenchantment with the political process: a generation stands at a crossroads, perceiving their socioeconomic plight and ambitions as either overlooked or mismanaged by those at the helm.

This pervasive feeling of abandonment fuels the growing apathy in political participation. Research reveals a stark contrast in electoral engagement between the youth and their elders, with the former’s turnout dwindling in successive general elections.

In addition to this political discourse that seems disconnected from the urgent realities of daily life, the reasons are manifold: a volatile job market that fails to absorb new entrants and educational systems that do not align with industry needs. As a result, the youth’s voice – a voice that should shape the future – is increasingly silenced by disillusionment and resignation.

A recent social media video has resonated deeply with South Africa’s young people, featuring President Cyril Ramaphosa’s interaction with a young black female graduate in search of employment. This exchange, captured amid the fervour of the ANC’s campaign for the general elections, lays bare the disillusionment many young South Africans harbour. The dialogue unfolded as follows:

Ramaphosa: “What did you study?” 

Young black woman: “Communication.” 

Ramaphosa: “Communications? And how old are you?” 

Young black woman: “I’m 23 years old.”

Ramaphosa: “So, you’re currently looking for a job?” 

Young black woman: “Yes, I’ve been searching, but it’s been a struggle to find employment.” 

Ramaphosa: “Yes, you must keep searching. Have you registered on the mobi site job portal?”

The brevity of this encounter, leaving the young woman visibly disheartened, speaks volumes about the chasm between the lived experiences of young job seekers and the perceptions of political figures. The President’s advice to “keep searching” and his referral to a mobile job portal come across as dismissive, failing to grasp the gravity of her situation. This interaction is emblematic of a broader issue: a government seemingly disconnected from the significant challenges faced by young graduates. It illustrates the dissonance between the demand for economic inclusion by the youth and the government’s inadequate response.

The young woman’s approach to the President, a symbol of authority with the power to enact change, was a plea for intervention – a hope that he could unlock doors to opportunity. Her presence during his electoral campaign was not just a quest for employment but a search for a reason to continue supporting the ANC.

Yet, the encounter ended without resolution, mirroring the findings of a Human Sciences Research Council study: a mere 19% of the youth feel their interests are a priority for the government, and only 12% believe they are represented in politics and policymaking. This disconnect contributes to a projected decline in youth voter turnout, to below 33%, perpetuating a trend of political disengagement.

Addressing the gap between young people and policymakers is vital for the health of South Africa’s democracy. If left unbridged, this divide will only deepen political disengagement, as the youth’s hopes for progress – so closely linked to educational advancement – remain overshadowed by the President’s indifferent stance.

Read more in Daily Maverick: 2024 elections

The viral video that sparked this opinion piece showcases a telling exchange between a young black woman and the President, reflecting a broader sentiment. The widespread sharing and commentary it elicited point to a grim reality: the youth feel abandoned, their voices ignored and rendered invisible by those in power.

Their socioeconomic conditions, rooted in a past that still casts a long shadow over daily life, seem unlikely to shift in a way that prioritises them.

Political indifference among the youth will persist, and most will not vote in the 29 May general elections as long as the entrusted leaders continue to sideline their dreams, ideals and socioeconomic realities – even when they seek direct engagement in the hope of change, or at the very least, a semblance of hope. DM


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  • jcdville stormers says:

    They are apathetic because they see what politicians specialise in”false promises”

  • Kanu Sukha says:

    Your pertinent observations notwithstanding, part (though small) of the ‘challenge’ facing the youth today, may be found in some of Michael Le Cordeur’s recent observations (Opinionista) .. even though as ‘dated’ (generationally) as it may seem. We live in increasingly ‘challenging’ times … and most ‘politicians’ are motivated/occupied by ‘what’s in it for ME’ … it seems .

  • Agf Agf says:

    This is nothing new and applies all round the world. In the early seventies I was a volunteer for the Progressive Party in Rondebosch when we got Van Zyl Slabbert elected. It was a real struggle trying to get the UCT students to vote. They were more interested in getting pissed at the Pig and Whistle than standing in a queue to vote.

    • Sabelo Mpisi says:

      Thank you for providing a historical perspective on this matter. Would really be interesting to see the trends of political apathy, say amongst the youth during the early transformative years into democracy and today. Any studies that you could recommend in this regard?

  • Sibahle M says:

    Excellent job of highlighting the urgent issue of youth unemployment in South Africa. Providing an insightful analysis of frustrations we as the youth currently face, good read Sabelo.

    • Sabelo Mpisi says:

      Thanks Sibahle! We really are alone. The indifference that President Cyril Ramaphosa displayed on the video is telling of the coming democratic years and the consequent elections.

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