To win over young people, the DA cannot rely on clean governance, but must also act to equalise society. File photo: Ihsaan Haffejee

Johannesburg -

Youth, political participation and the potential impact of this on the future of politics here is important for anyone with an interest in South African politics.

South Africa has a youthful population with close to 50 percent falling in the category “youth”.

The uniqueness of this population demographic has inspired interest in the social and political dynamic that this could inform in South Africa. Some, who argue that a significant part of the electorate would be “born-frees” (born after 1994) by the time we reach the 2019 general elections, have already started linking ambitious possibilities for the DA.

This could have serious positive spin-offs for the DA. While I agree that the DA has a bright future, I would caution against reading too much into how substantially the DA will benefit from SA’s youthful population, particularly in 2019.

The DA is working hard to secure its political future under Helen Zille’s leadership. The party’s support has grown in each election. It has secured Cape Town and the Western Cape as solid bases and is rapidly “de-racialising” its leadership. It has recently made real inroads into working class and poor black communities. There are now small but vibrant DA branches in many townships and informal settlements, including here in Durban.Zille recently gave a well-received talk in Lamontville. The DA has even won over some formerly radical community activists in Joburg.

While most of the smaller parties have seen declines in support since 1994, the DA took close to 25 percent of the vote at the last local government election and is aiming to get 30 percent of the vote in the 2014 general election. No doubt, it has bigger plans for the 2019 general election.

The party is on track to win Port Elizabeth and could possibly even take Gauteng, so it was not surprising when Zille was elected unopposed last weekend at her party’s congress. What has surprised some is that esteemed writer and intellectual Njabulu Ndebele gave a keynote address at the DA congress. When a black intellectual of Ndebele’s stature is willing to speak at a DA congress, it is clear that the tide is turning.

For the DA to sustain its growth it must work faster to shed its racial baggage: it must convince young people that their future lies with the DA. In post-colonial societies around the world, people who have grown up after colonialism have tended not to feel the same loyalty to national liberation movements as their elders. But that doesn’t mean the DA can take youth support for granted.

The problem when anticipating potential youth support in the future is the fact that the youth are thought of as one homogenous group. No doubt there is a middle-class explosion in the country with more and more young black people entering the middle classes, but the vast majority are poor and unemployed.

Although we saw a significant increase in the number of young black people voting in 2009, there is growing disenchantment with formal electoral politics among the youth. Employment is their main concern. At 60 percent South Africa has the highest rate of youth unemployment in the region. These are the youth that opt to drive protest politics and “service delivery” protests as opposed to electoral politics.

But the problem with the DA is it just doesn’t get the fact that our society is fundamentally unjust, and requires an overhaul. The DA’s British and American style neo-liberalism that takes the view that free markets and good clean governance is about as much as a government should offer its people, can’t work.

This political commitment to a mode of neo-Thatcherite liberalism in the most unequal country in the world will ensure that the DA does not sustain popular support.

The DA is seen as an “anti-corruption party” but a less corrupt and more efficient system on its own can’t build an inclusive society. Neo-liberalism is not racism, but it functions to enrich the rich and to further impoverish the poor, and so a DA government would simply entrench the racialisation of our society.

Government may be “cleaner” in the Western Cape and perhaps more “efficient” too. But it hardly helps the poor. Income inequality remains the highest in the country and the “tik” epidemic there is destroying the youth. If the DA wants to have any chance of winning a place in the hearts of this country’s people, it must recognise that the injustices of the past have not been remedied and that we need radical action to equalise society. And not just in terms of the law, but in terms of people’s actual lives.

It would have to look, as the remaining democrats in Cosatu are doing, to the example of a country like Brazil that is making real headway against poverty.

If the DA “de-racialises” itself without changing its politics, it will simply be a “de-racialised” party of the middle class – not of the poor – most of whom are young. To enhance our democracy, we need a credible socialist or social democratic party that can combine clean governance with a commitment to participatory government that puts people before profits.

* Buccus is a research fellow in the School of Social Sciences at UKZN and academic director of a university study abroad programme on political transformation.

The Star Africa