Just 25 years ago South Africa had its first democratic elections after the fall of the apartheid government. It was a historical moment as millions of South Africans, who were previously excluded from voting by the former government’s racist policies, were exercising their right to vote for the first time. And yet today, years later, many young South Africans find themselves unwilling to celebrate and exercise this inalienable right for various reasons. The youth demographic has had a notoriously low voter registration and lower voter turnout than any other demographic in recent years.
As a first-time voter, and a young person, I am tempted to map out an elaborate taxonomy of youth voters and all their political, economic and social grievances in order to paint a thorough account of why young people don’t seem interested in politics and voting.
The common go-to is that young people are apathetic and, although this may be true on some counts, there’s as much complexity in youth voters’ views as in any other demographic. No group is a monolith and should not be treated as such — and this should apply to young people, too.
The youth demographic in South Africa includes people aged from 15 to 34, with the legal voting age at 18 years old. That is a broad demographic in itself and the multiplicity of priorities in it is equally broad. This means that treating young people like single-issue voters by latching onto a single youth-friendly policy issue such as “youth unemployment”, however valid and popular, simply isn’t going to cut it. The youth are interested in more than one issue — we are interested in political parties’ plans for making higher education more accessible, how they plan to improve service delivery, their strategy for land reform and how they’re going to bring down the cost of living because we’re paying taxes too.
Young people are also not immune to the general decline in positive perceptions about politics and the effectiveness of democratic electoral processes in delivering services and other political goods. This despondence is only entrenched further by the tokenistic engagement of young people during election periods rather than truly including us in other decision-making platforms.
One can’t ignore the glaring absence of civic education in school curricula. It’s no wonder many South Africans are unaware of other ways to hold the government accountable outside of elections. Our schools do not teach the youth about how laws can be challenged, how the legislatures are comprised, how ward councillors and committees are formed or how they can challenge Bills et cetera. Politicians see votes as the only worthwhile form of participation when it is clear that it takes much more to keep a democracy alive and kicking.
Of course, there is the issue of not relating to the political ideologies or leadership of the competing parties. But in order to move past this hurdle, we need to do better by young people. We need to treat young people like the intelligent, capable and important demographic that we are. Parties and government need to engage young people and welcome them in spaces — not as tokens or a challenge to overcome, but as an opportunity to strengthen our democracy and to tap into innovative approaches and new thinking.