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Perceptions of African youth in the political space

Young people cast their votes in Cape Town. Picture: Matthew Jordan/African News Agency (ANA) Archives

Young people cast their votes in Cape Town. Picture: Matthew Jordan/African News Agency (ANA) Archives

Published Apr 22, 2022

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By Ratidzo Makombe

Prior to the granting of independence of several African states in the 1960s and 1970s, the fight for democracy involved a large demographic of the youth.

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Examples of these youth leaders include Tom Mboya, a 33-year-old who was actively involved in the 1963 liberation of Kenya; Steve Biko, in his 20s, leading other student activists in opposition against the apartheid regime; and Simon Charles Mazorodze, a 30-year-old Zimbabwean, instrumental in the establishment of the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (Zanu-PF) in 1963.

These vibrant young men stood taller among other brave heroes who fought for electoral democracy in Africa. The political participation of the youth during this period was very high, thus, accounting for an effective change in the society.

While the youth is being forced into political apathy in the contemporary political climate on the continent, the youth are still ever important to the democratisation project.

Two decades into the 21st century, the place of the youth in political development is being significantly restricted by African political elites. However, young people between the ages of 15 and 24 constitute about 20% of sub-Saharan Africa’s population, making it the continent with the most youthful demographic globally. Hence, the youth will be future leaders and the future drivers of democratisation.

Democratisation

By democratisation, I refer to the introduction and extension of citizenship rights and the creation of a democratic state. Citizenship rights entail introducing liberal individual rights such as freedom of assembly, religious freedom, a free press, and freedom to stand for public office.

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At the same time, a democratic state embraces the regular holding of free and fair elections and the introduction of basic electoral norms such as an absence of intimidation, the establishment of a multi-party system, and inclusive suffrage.

Rights have been compromised within the African citizenship space, while the official youth unemployment rate (ages 15 to 24) stands at 10.6 %. Unfortunately, the majority of youth work informally, leaving them underemployed or wallowing in poverty due to low wages and lack of a social safety net.

Moreover, service delivery from African governments has been affected by corruption, reducing economic efficiency, slowing down administrative processes, and undermining sustainable development.

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On democratisation, a “two-test turnover” is very low, with 28 out of 54 African countries under an electoral autocracy. The resurgence of military coups in the last two years is telling of how the democratic state has come under threat.

There is a need to interrogate the societal, economic, and political factors that continue to undermine good governance and reinforce the existing patterns of exclusion that fuel disengagement and dissent.

Youth Voter Apathy

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African countries that have experienced democratic decline and restricted electoral systems have a common problem - youth voter apathy.

According to the Mo Ibrahim Foundation, as of 2020, “about 60% of Africans, and especially youth, think that their governments are doing a very bad or a fairly bad job at addressing the needs of young people.” This speaks to the democratic challenges facing most African governments.

Some argue that the situation is more of voter apathy rather than political apathy. For instance, South Africa held its local government elections in 2021. Over 26 million South Africans registered to vote, and only about 4,3 million youth registered to vote aged 18 to 29, which portrays voter apathy. Kenya will hold its national election in August 2022.

In February 2022, its Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) had only netted 12% of the 4.5 million young voters that registered to vote. Therefore, voter apathy needs to be addressed on the continent.

African governments need to take a few long-term and short-term steps to increase youth participation in the electoral process. Ways to increase African youth voter participation in voters’ education is an essential aspect of the electoral process. In most African countries, this practice takes place a year before the general election, and this has proven inadequate.

The electorates must engage the political process more frequently and routinely to increase voters and civic education. This will empower the youth with the knowledge of why voting is crucial and the different electoral systems (proportional representation or first past the post) within their states, including how they function and what impacts they have on their lives for the foreseeable electoral cycle.

Electoral education should be part of the education curriculum from primary to high school in the long term. This does not only create patriotic citizens, but it instils the importance of one’s voice from a young age.

This will improve the volume of the youth vote in Africa and shape one’s understanding of the importance of elections. As the fourth industrial revolution (4IR) is upon us, youth participation is essential to drive this technologically-inclined development.

Accessibility has become one of the most pivotal aspects of the millennium generation. The use of electoral technology has been very controversial on the continent. However, the youth are more likely to vote if they have access to their mobile phones instead of the long queues that characterised voting in Africa.

A hybrid voters system could positively impact Africa’s elections, and considering that the youth will constitute one-third of the African population by 2050, this option is worth exploring. Only two African countries, Namibia and the Democratic Republic of Congo, use an E-voting system. This has increased youth participation in both countries.

While democracy is more than just voting, voting is a major determining factor that creates an expansion of self-determination and opportunities the youth to continue to aspire for. Indeed, creating an electoral space that accommodates the youth is important for the future of the African electoral process and vital for its democratic consolidation.

* Ratidzo Makombe is a doctoral candidate in Development Studies and a researcher at the University of Johannesburg’s Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation (IPATC).

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