Young people’s cynicism — if not realism — about the shortcomings and failures of politics and the political system in South Africa stand between them registering to vote, in large numbers, and eventually casting a vote. This is ironic in the context that the youth has historically played an important role in changing South African politics.
After the final registration weekend in 2014, 25.3 million people registered to vote out of an estimated 31.4 million eligible people. While the number of registered voters in 2019 has increased to 26.7 million, the eligible population has increased to about 35.9 million. This puts the registration rate at 74.5% in 2019, well below the 80.5% in 2014.
“The Electoral Commission is pleased with the overall registration level which remains high by international standards for countries with a voluntary registration system. The final registration weekend added over 700,000 new voters to the roll, with 81% (574,899) of those under 30 years old. However, the Commission remains concerned that approximately nine million eligible voters are still not registered, of which six million are under 30 years old.
The youth are notoriously reluctant to take the step to become part of the garbled “adult world” where political parties, elections and government interface. Throughout South Africa’s 25 years of democracy, youth voter registration and ballot-casting rates have been lower than those of the older age categories.
Several young people at the final voter registration in Mfuleni told GroundUp they had chosen not to register. “The quality of the houses we get is appalling. We still get second-rate education at schools and poor service at government hospitals and clinics,” one man told us.
Youth in South Africa understandably have more reason than the older age categories to be cynical about voting. For a prolonged time now, they have borne the brunt of unemployment. Their unemployment rate, according to the Spectator Index, is estimated just short of 53%, far higher than the population average. Among the other painful experiences strangulating young people socially are gender violence, crimes such as drug use, and lack of access to quality health and education, despite having won important education victories.
Can they be blamed for wondering whether their votes would help make a difference in this particular election? Party politics in recent times has equally not made electoral participation attractive to the youth — except for “missionary youths” who want to rescue South Africa from the hands of party politicians.
According to the International Electoral Commission of South Africa, out of the 26 774 069 million registered voters 21% of those are under the age 30, while the highest age group of registered voters are between 30-39 at 25%. There are 6 million eligible unregistered voters, and 5 727 642 million registered voters under the age of 30 of which not all will end up voting.
We interviewed a few young people who gave us interesting reasons for either wanting to vote, or saving the vote for a time when they would have faith in the politics of South Africa. While some of the young people we interviewed shared the view that they are simply voting to exercise their rights to vote, there is one specific young lady from Benoni who said; “I will be voting for the EFF just to give the ANC a strong opposing party” This young lady is of the view that the ANC is ‘sleeping’ and need a wake up call. so as much as she would be casting her vote, she’s almost using it against the party she would actually like to vote for.
A young man from Pretoria refuses to even register to vote and is happy to be part of the 6 million eligible voters who are still not registered because he doesn’t trust or have faith in any of the political parties, so he might as well just keep his vote for himself. He says “If there was a way to vote for Ramaphosa and not the ANC, I would, but because I can’t do that, why waste my vote”
There is a majority of people under the age of 30 that share the same views as the above mentioned young people, but we couldn’t stress enough the importance standing for what you believe in. On the contrary, we spoke to an 88 year old man who was part of the struggle of apartheid and he told us how much he would never take for granted the opportunity to cast a vote and having a hand in choosing who is in power. When we asked him what he thought of young people who didn’t want to vote he said; “The youth of today can’t just fold their arms and do nothing, they are the future of this country. If they won’t go vote then they must roll up their sleeves and either start a new political party or join an existing one and make a change from the inside.”
Many other freedom fighters just like this 88 year old, believe in the ANC because that is the party that got them out the apartheid system, although they know it is not the same party anymore they will still vote because it is a right they fought for.
Political parties are weak, but one of them will be elected into power (perhaps even forced to form a coalition). Political reinvigoration is essential, and there are unparalleled openings for the youth to make themselves the new “mainstream” of South African politics — by bringing the parallel participatory processes into conventional politics and creating an unconventional new core.
Voting empowers the youth to define both the future of South Africa and their role in it