At next year’s 2024 general elections, an estimated 15 million people between the ages of 18 and 30-years-old - the so called born-frees - will form one of the major voting blocs in what is gearing up to be the most contested elections in a generation.
The buzz on the ground among young people who are disillusioned or fed up with the current government is that 2024 is their 1994.
The 15 million plus youth voters represents 5 million more people who voted for the ANC in the 2019 general elections and just under two million less than all the votes counted.
To say that the youth vote alone could sway next year’s election dramatically is an understatement.
If data is anything to go by, they will not.
South Africa has one of the world’s lowest voter turnouts - a number that has been on the decline since 1994.
In the 2029 general elections, only 66,1% of registered voters turned up at the ballot box.
There were 26.7 million registered voters at the 2019 elections and a little over 17 million pitched up to vote.
And people aged between 18 and 20 have the lowest voter turnout of all the age groups in the country.
A report commissioned by the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung on voter turnout in the 2021 local government election revealed that less than 20% of the population aged between 18 and 35 registered to vote.
This is a statistic that keeps Mbali Ntuli, the founder of the Ground Work Collective, up at night.
Ground Work Collective is a youth-led initiative dedicated to mobilising young voters through its #X_Change campaign.
Ntuli is a former DA politician turned activist.
The #X_Change campaign is a campaign, in collaboration with CitizensZA, the Independent Electoral Commission, Futurelect, and various other partners, that seeks to address the growing disillusionment among South Africa's young population ahead of the 2024 general elections.
"Even before the census came out, there was already over 5 million young people between the ages of 17 to 19. So next year, they’ll be 18, and able to vote and they would have been first-time voters," Ntuli explained.
"Then there's another category of another 8 million of people that are between 22 and 24, who would have only ever voted in one election before. We are looking at a huge number of people, almost 13 million people that were eligible to vote and register. They have not done so."
Add to that the number of people between 25 and 30 and the number swells to over 15 million voters.
This staggering number of “disengaged young voters” represents a ticking time bomb for South Africa's democratic processes, Ntuli said.
She said the reasons behind this disillusionment are various, citing a disconnect between the youth and politicians.
"There's a very big disconnect between what they see politicians are doing and what they feel should be done, and how they feel like they have no avenues to access or reach those people. And so they then get frustrated and disillusioned," she said.
Furthermore, Ntuli pointed out that for those born into post-apartheid South Africa, democracy has often been a theoretical concept, lacking tangible benefits.
"They've only ever known things like load shedding. They've only ever been told that they might not get a job, and they see it as a state of duality," she added.
"So for them, democracy has become something that's theoretical, not something that they actually actively understand, and they also have no historical existence to any of the global policies or liberation history. They don't really care about liberation and because they have not seen it in their lives. They haven't felt as though they've experienced the fruits of what it should have been.”
Ntuli highlighted a concerning survey by Afrobarometer, revealing that 72% of young people would consider giving up democracy in exchange for promises of jobs and security.
“That is very, very scary because it means that we have actually allowed for young people to not fully understand how a participatory democracy works,” she said, adding that the survey underscored the critical need for civic education among South Africa's youth.
Ntuli acknowledged the role of social media in allowing young people to voice their frustrations but noted that it should be complemented by active participation in the democratic process.
"What they don't seem to understand is that if they don't also show up at the polls to actually make a change to the policies or change the policy-makers that are making them unhappy, then nothing changes," she said.
She also pointed out the lack of attention from political parties toward young voters and their issues, stressing the importance of registering them in significant numbers. "None of them really pay attention to young people because none of them are registering them in the numbers," Ntuli remarked.
In light of these challenges, the Ground Work Collective's #X_Change campaign is taking proactive steps to re-engage the youth. Ntuli outlined a four-phase approach, starting with physically registering young voters, utilising incentives, music, and influencers to make the campaign appealing.
The campaign aims not only to get young people interested in voting, but also to provide them with civic education.
"Once you've registered someone, then you have the ability to start pushing curriculum onto them. We've designed a curriculum along with the new members who will teach it and even take young people from the very beginning and show them how the government's work."
Additionally, the Ground Work Collective plans to train 10,000 independent election observers to ensure active participation in the electoral process beyond voting.
Ntuli's vision for the campaign is clear: "We want you to be somebody that's active because we've given you civic education and it has empowered you ... you must also protect the election."
With their extensive efforts, the Ground Work Collective aims to reignite the spirit of participation among South Africa's youth, ensuring that they play a vital role in shaping the future of the nation through the ballot box.