WHEN Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe, former ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema and Western Cape Premier Helen Zille emerged as the most popular leaders among the youth in a recent online survey, eyebrows shot up over the mix.
The results of the Pondering Panda survey of over 3 600 people under 35 on the social media platform Mxit appear to back what commentators have long hinted at: a break by the younger generation from the sentiments and loyalties of their parents and grandparents, who lived under apartheid and, very often, participated in the anti-apartheid Struggle.
Institute for Justice and Reconciliation policy and analysis head Jan Hofmeyr says young people “are not unconditionally attached to parties” and are often issue-driven.
“They are interested in what’s happening, but they are not expressing themselves necessarily in the party political sense,” he said, adding young people were very visible on social media platforms like Twitter, as shown by responses to, among others, the racist tweets of two models and the debate around The Spear painting.
“My sense is that young South Africans are politically becoming more open to different options,” Hofmeyr said, echoing other commentators’ views that youngsters are not necessarily wedded to party politics.
And that could herald a shift – if young people, or the “born frees”, take the time and trouble to cast their ballots, that is, to give voice to their political interests.
Already, people under the age of 30 make up a quarter of the voters rolls nationally, representing about six million of the 23.6 million registered voters.
In the Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal, Limpopo and the Northern Cape, the number of those under 30 is edging closer to being a third of all registered voters, according to the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) 2011 voters’ roll.
The picture was slightly different for the 2009 national elections, when people under 30 represented 27.1 percent of registered voters after a high-profile awareness campaign targeting young voters.
Voter participation surveys conducted by the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) in April 2011, commissioned by the IEC, showed it was crucial to instill a voting culture: people who cast their ballots while young were more likely to do so as adults.
The study showed young South Africans are not any less interested in politics than their older counterparts.
Forty percent of people aged 16 to 34 were very or fairly interested in politics, which was not far behind the 45 percent for the 35 to 44 age bracket or the 43 percent for the 55 to 64 age bracket. And most indicated they wanted to cast their ballots.
This high level of interest in politics and active political discussions among the youth is also reflected in other research, including from the UCT’s Centre for Social Science Research and the HSRC’s Social Attitude Surveys dating back to just before the 2009 national elections.
With talk of youth apathy blown out of the water, research also shows young people are not behind service delivery protests. This appears to contradict statements by politicians and trade unionists, who cite high youth unemployment in the same breath as the ever-increasing number of street protests, sometimes violent, in municipalities across the country.
However, serious concerns remain in a country where those under 35 make up half of the 50 million-strong population.
In an Afrobarometer survey late last year, Professor Robert Mattes of the UCT Centre for Social Science Research found the experience of young South Africans post-1994 was not very different from that of their parents or grandparents.
“Whatever advantages might accrue from the new political experience of political freedom and a regular, peaceful electoral process, are diminished by frustrating encounters with the political process, victimisation by corrupt officials and enduring levels of unemployment and poverty,” he concluded.
Apartheid faultlines appeared to continue, argued Mattes, who also highlighted that the new school curriculum had had no impact in instilling a belief and commitment to democracy, in contrast to many other southern African countries, leaving the post-1994 generation less committed to democracy than older generations.
Interaction with national public representatives was almost non-existent, he said, while the experience with councillors had been largely negative, leading to particularly low levels of actual engagement with the political system.
The grim reality remains: three in four unemployed South Africans are under the age of 35, the majority of them are black and the worst-affected are rural women.
Every year, some 400 000 matriculants cannot find employment or go on to further studies.
While the government says that it is improving access to further education through bursaries, that various work initiatives like the community works and expanded public works programmes are targeting youth for jobs, the youth-specific development body, the National Youth Development Agency (NYDA), stands accused by the “Stop the NYDA” campaign on Facebook of being a platform for the young politically connected to earn top salaries .
In this context, tensions over, for example, the youth wage subsidy, can and have exploded. While the DA touts it as a solution to get young people into work, labour federation Cosatu is opposed to it amid concerns it would undermine older workers and exploit young entrants to the job market without the anticipated skills training. The ANC Youth League and the Young Communist League back Cosatu in this.
Where would young people go politically?
Elsewhere in Africa, from Tunisia to Egypt, young people, often with the aid of social media platforms, were at the forefront of socio-political change in the Arab Spring. Youngsters also played a key role in the anti-capitalist protests “Occupy Wall Street” in the US and Europe, where youth unemployment in countries like Spain and Greece has hit all-time highs.
In SA, few commentators are ready to risk predictions.
Hofmeyr says: “I’d be very curious to see where the next election goes.”
With Motlanthe polling 28.5 percent – and up to 33.5 percent among young black South Africans – according to reports on the Mxit survey, Malema enjoys 19.8 percent support on average, with more 18- to 24- year-olds in favour (23.3 percent) than those over 25.
Zille emerged as the top choice among coloured respondents (55 percent) and scored 18.7 percent across the board – just behind Malema and ahead of ANC president Jacob Zuma, who scored worst across race and age groups at 15.3 percent.
The DA and its youth wing have gone all-out to capture young political sentiment. Several of its leaders are young, including parliamentary leader Lindiwe Mazibuko and national spokesman and Joburg City caucus leader Mmusi Maimane.
The DA Youth Organisation has made significant headway in student representative councils at campuses from Nelson Mandela Metro to Free State universities and hit the headlines with its anti-racism campaign featuring a black and white naked couple under the motto “In OUR future you wouldn’t think twice”.
It is a vocal, but not necessarily representative voice.
While Malema’s populist appeal has been divisive – although the ANC Youth League successfully ensured that its call for the nationalisation of mines and land redistribution without compensation was part of the governing party’s policy debates over the past two years – his expulsion has removed him and the potential to mobilise for the ANC.
The party’s focus this year has been on its history and track record as a century-old liberation movement. Its policy discussion papers talk of the need to harness the youth’s energy and creativity and pay more attention to political schooling for young cadres so they emerge as credible leaders through what is called the preparatory school of the ANCYL.
From academics, trade unionists to politicians, there is recognition that youth frustration over the lack of jobs, education and other concerns like healthcare and security may boil over.
June is youth month. Next Saturday is Youth Day, the public holiday commemorating the 1976 Soweto uprising and other youth protests elsewhere in the country. Will there again be just platitudes?
With an election in 2014, and young people a key constituency, politicians may want to substitute sweet words with concrete action.