First Political Cafe – 1 June 2016: The Youth vote and local elections

The largest proportion of the South African population is below the age of 35. Youth are therefore disproportionately affected by everything that goes on in the country.

It is little wonder that unemployment afflicts the youth more than any other demographic. It is young people that feel the frustration brought on by inequality. When municipalities fail to deliver services and provide infrastructure, it’s the youth that suffer most as they rely on these to realise their potential.

It is safe to say that young people have the greatest stake in ensuring that local government functions optimally. Young people have the most to gain or lose from the policies proposed by political parties that are vying to run municipalities in the upcoming August 3 local government elections.

If that is the case, then young people cannot afford to be apathetic. And yet, youth are seemingly not keen on political participation.

Young people especially those between ages 18-19 represent the lowest percentage of the population that is registered to vote with under 50% of young people below the age of 35 years on the voter’s roll.

Elnari Potgieter and Barend F. Lutz, independent researchers note that “Before, during and after the South African national elections of 2014, concerns had been raised over the seeming lack of political participation among young South African voters, particularly “born frees”.

They then ask a pertinent question: “Is what is being witnessed among the youth merely a matter of voting apathy rather than political apathy?”

That is the question that the Political Cafe, the first in a series hosted by Democracy Works Foundation at the Bannister hotel last Wednesday, sought to answer.

The panel made up of Thamsanqa Masingi of Enke – Make Your Mark, Pearl Pillay of YouthLab and Khaya Dlanga, independent political commentator and author, presented compelling answers.

Young people are disillusioned by a political system that does not appeal to them and disempowers them.

Although it is a big concern, the youth’s failure to vote and turn out to the polls is not a reflection on youth but on the political landscape of South Africa today.

“If we go back in history, political parties during apartheid engaged young people. Young people were at the forefront of everything. When it came to engaging in topics that affect them, they were put at the forefront. If we look at 1976 we had your Tsietsi [Mashinini] who was also at the forefront, if we look at the state of emergency in 1986 it was also young people who were put at the forefront.

“In 1994 the ruling party in a way demobilised not just young people but the entire South Africa and asked people to sit back while they try to do everything for us. The ruling party might be the reason why we’re having so called youth apathy,” said Masingi.

We cannot discount the generational gap between the leading politicians in our country and the young people making up the majority of the voting population. All presidents of the country since 1994 have not been below the age of 50. Young people don’t see themselves reflected in the political system.

“Lack of participation is participation. It is a clear statement being made by young people that “you are not relating to me, nor are you talking about my problems, therefore, why should I be involved?,” said Dlanga.

Dlanga added that the excitement brought about by parties like the EFF is particularly because they are young people who are challenging the cultural norms that tell youth that older people shouldn’t be questioned.

Young people are engaged, they are in tune with what is happening in their communities. They are at the forefront of service delivery protests and of demands for accountability from their representatives at the local level. It’s not that they don’t want to participate, they may not have enough information as to how to engage in the formal processes and platforms of democratic participation.

“People may not actually understand the difference between the elections we’re having [and the general elections] so lots of people will think that if I’m voting for the EFF then in fact I’m voting for Julius Malema to be the president. I don’t think that institutions like the IEC are doing enough to challenge and actually change those perceptions, that actually this is what local elections are. People don’t actually understand that they’re voting for the people who actually run their communities,” Pillay said.

It is clear that a distinction needs to be made between political apathy and voter apathy, between conventional or formal types of participation and unconventional forms of participation.

Young people are not just passive clients waiting to receive from the state. They are engaged and want to be at the forefront of their own development.

Government, specifically local government, needs to play its role by providing an environment conducive for youth to realise their potential. There needs to be more energy and resources put into voter and civic education by institutions like the Independent Electoral Institute (IEC) among others.

Political parties need to do more to appeal to young people by championing causes they relate to and addressing issues that affect them.

Democracy Works Foundation's Chief Editor can be one of our communication team members, a director or a Reference Group member.

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