Independent candidates can reignite youth participation

Image: Getty,  Dino Lloyd
Image: Getty, Dino Lloyd

The month of April marked 27 years since South Africa's first democratic national elections on 27 April 1994. This was the genesis of the country's multi-party, proportional representation electoral system that has been used ever since. However, this is set to change.

On 11 June 2020, the Constitutional Court declared certain provisions of the Electoral Act unconstitutional insofar as they require candidates to have political party membership to contest in the national elections. Parliament has until 2022 to make necessary provisions to allow independent candidates to run in the 2024 national elections. What does this mean for the youth of South Africa?
Youth participation in elections has declined over the past decade.

The registration of newly eligible young people (ages 18-29) has consistently declined from 8.3 million (in the 2011 local elections), to 6.4 million (2014 national elections), and 6.3 million during the 2016 local elections. Other statistics by the Independent Electoral Commission reveal that 60% of eligible voters who did not register for the 2019 national elections are aged between 18 and 29 years. Moreover, there was a 47% decline in voters between the ages of 18 and 19 in the last poll compared to the 2014 national elections, with ages 20 to 29 also dropping by 9%.

This is even more alarming when considering that young people aged 18 to 34 comprise almost 30% of the country’s population according to Stats SA’s 2019 mid-year estimates.

There are various explanations offered for this lack of youth participation. While some commentators focus on voter apathy, a report by the Institute of Security Studies (ISS) suggests that young people are increasingly frustrated by socio-economic challenges, such as education and unemployment. Indeed, the Labour Force Survey 2020 fourth-quarter results indicate that the overall unemployment rate increased to 32.5% and youth unemployment (for the age category 14 to 24 years) is 63.2%.

Inadequate government responsiveness to issues affecting young people impacts their electoral participation. There is dissatisfaction with political leadership. Young people are losing faith in the ability of elections to contribute to the accountability of the government, amid rising corruption. Therefore, young people have turned to non-electoral means of political participation such as social movements (including protests).

Moreover, there is inadequate representation of youth in parliament, with just 11% of MPs being under the age of 30 after the 2019 elections. Although this is an improvement from the previous elections, it is still an insufficient representation of a large section of the population. Young people are hence at the periphery of the country’s electoral and political systems as their voices are not represented in an ageing parliament that is out of touch with their present realities. Parliamentary representation is important in this context for two main reasons.

Firstly, parliament representation is directly linked to electoral outcomes. Secondly, parliament is responsible for law-making and prioritisation of certain policies. Therefore, independent candidacy offers an opportunity for young people to increase their parliament membership to advance youth agendas and advocate for laws and policies that benefit them most. The presence of formidable young independent candidates can, in turn, increase youth enthusiasm towards electoral participation.

Now, how can young South Africans seize the opportunity of independent candidacy and how feasible is this? Young people have a history of mobilising themselves towards common goals. There is evidence both historically (the 1976 Soweto Uprising) and more recently with the #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall movements since 2015.

This highlights the potential of the youth electorate to mobilise support for young independent candidates whose policies aim to align with issues affecting the youth. The movement for increased youth electoral participation and increased parliament representation is also gaining momentum in other parts of Africa. For example, in 2016 Nigerian youth ran a ‘Not Too Young To Run‘ campaign which culminated in a law reducing the age requirements for running for public office.

Potential young independent candidates would need to target the youth constituency. Part of the success of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) in the last national election was attributed to the party’s youthful MPs which attracted a younger demographic. Young people’s apathy towards existing political parties, the alienation of the youth by political leadership, previous cases of successful youth political mobilisation, and the potential for increased youth representation in parliament, are factors that can influence the youth constituency’s openness to young independent candidates.

It won’t be easy though. The main challenge would be campaign funding, as political parties spend exorbitant funds on travelling, marketing material, and rallies. Yet, the world is undergoing a technological revolution. Young people are more accessible online than ‘on the ground’. Hence campaigns can be run from social media platforms, through the arts, and other creative means to reach the youth constituency.

The aim here is not to disregard the importance of political parties and the ‘older generation’ of political leadership. The current generation of young people would not have received the opportunities they have today if it were not for the sacrifices made by their seniors. However, it is this very older generation of political leadership that is responsible for the socio-economic and political decay of the country. Therefore, it is time for the next generation to rise and seize the opportunity – starting with the election of young independent candidates in 2024.