Prof. Sethulego Matebesi
The participation of young people in formal political processes like elections is fundamental for democracy. However, disengaged youth in electoral processes has been a longstanding problem in South Africa.
In a dramatic departure from this dim view of youth political participation, the Electoral Commission of South Africa (IEC) described the recent final voter registration weekend as a resounding success, with 77% of people registered to vote being young. But here, too, we know that voter registration does not equate to voting. Although this assertion is true, whether such a concern is premature is a debate for another day.
The current voters’ roll provides a glimpse into the potential scenarios of the upcoming elections in South Africa.
Scenario 1: The ANC’s electoral performance
During South Africa’s most recent elections in 2019, the African National Congress (ANC) retained its position as the ruling party despite seeing a decline in its overall electoral support. The party’s electoral performance has been subject to various factors and considerations, including its historical role in the anti-apartheid struggle, internal challenges, economic and societal issues, competition from opposition parties, and changing demographics.
The demographic shifts, particularly among younger voters, will prompt the ANC and many other political parties to adapt their strategies to resonate with this population segment. This strategy is becoming even more pressing for the ANC if one considers that the latest Ipsos poll shows a dramatic decline in electoral support.
But is it plausible, taking into consideration external factors (campaign developments, news events, and shifts in public opinion) and contextual factors (the broader political landscape), that the ANC’s electoral will plummet to 40% as predicted by the latest poll? Polls provide valuable insights into voter preferences but should be approached with caution. I, therefore, leave it to the reader to decide the plausibility of this prediction.
One of the most sobering - and fascinating - conclusions about this scenario is that the ANC will have to effectively mobilise its base, address the concerns of disillusioned voters, and, more importantly, present a compelling vision for the future of the youth to draw the support of young voters.
Scenario 2: The influence of the youth
The youth, comprising a significant portion of South Africa’s voters’ roll, hold immense potential to shape the outcome of the upcoming elections should the recent surge in activism and political awareness translate into electoral participation. Therefore, to tap into this segment of the voters, political parties first need to understand the concerns of the youth.
Unlike many African democracies, the South African constitutional and legal frameworks remain among the most robust tools to develop and mandate youth-friendly electoral policies and practices. This legislative environment to foster youth inclusion, participation, and representation in electoral processes must be accompanied by addressing the pertinent challenges they face, for example, unemployment, limited access to quality education, and social issues such as violence and substance abuse.
In addition, the youth are embedded in a culture of digitalisation and are often at the forefront of driving digital transformation in various aspects of their life. Recognising the appeal of digital platforms to the youth, political parties pretend to embrace these platforms by using them as channels for youth activism and advocacy on various issues. Many youths may have fallen for the act in the past.
But for today’s youth, digital skills are increasingly essential for employment, entrepreneurship, and innovation. Two questions are pertinent. Which political party in South Africa today is engaging the youth on their terms? Which party will equip the youth with digital competencies to thrive in the modern job market?
After all, youth participation and representation in institutional political processes and policy-making remain relatively low despite its potential to build stable societies. For example, only 6% of parliamentarians in the National Assembly and the National Council of Provinces in the South African Parliament are young.
Youth representation continues to be trivialised when one looks at the average age of party leaders. Such an underrepresentation of the youth may weaken faith not so much in political parties as in democracy and electoral processes.
While the chances of the ANC securing 50% of the votes remain uncertain, the youth’s influence on the outcome of the elections cannot be ignored. Young voters will determine whether the ANC-facing an onslaught from opposition parties, including those led by their former president and secretary general – can regain its former glory or a more fragmented political landscape emerges.
As the election approaches, parties must listen to the voice of the youth and work towards building a more inclusive and prosperous nation.
*Prof. Matebsi is Associate Professor and Head of the Department of Sociology
**The views expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of Independent Media or IOL