On youth participation in politics with William Gumede

On Monday 15 September 2014, the world celebrated the 7th International Day of Democracy. In 2007, the United Nations General Assembly resolved to observe 15 September as the International Day of Democracy for the purpose of promoting and upholding the principles of democracy all over the world on this day.

by Tshepang Tlhapane

The theme for this year’s occasion was “Engaging young people in democracy,”  with a focus on highlighting the challenges and opportunities of young people engaging in democratic processes.

Numerous studies conducted all over the world have one thing in common: the declining sense of faith and trust that young people have in politics. South Africa is no different. The declining levels of youth engaging in election processes and politics around the world correlates with youth participation stats in SA. Among the 1.9 million young people aged between 18 and 19 registered to vote for the 2014 national elections, only one in three turned up to make their mark at the ballot.

Live Magazine caught up with Professor William Gumede, a convenor at the University of the Witwatersrand, to discuss the levels  of youth participation in South African politics. Mr Gumede is also the founder of Democracy Works – a new foundation promoting democracy in South Africa, neighbouring African countries, as well as developing countries in the rest of the world.

“Take a look at the last 50 years and you will notice that the youth has always been at the forefront of democratic change,” Professor Gumede begins. “Young people have always pushed forward in the transformation for democracy.” Professor Gumede singles out the 1976 Soweto uprising, which was carried out by the youth of the time, emphasizing how youth form part of the majority of the South African population and are therefore key.

Regarding the decline in youth participation in elections over the past decade, Professor Gumede reckons the reason for this is due to the fact that our current democracy doesn’t involve young people. “There are not enough avenues to influence parliament; young people have no decision making power. Instead we have a democracy that is ran by old people. We need young people to have a [bigger] stake in our democracy.”

In addition to the non-participation of young people, Gumede also explains that the reason our democracy is in crisis is because ordinary people are unable to participate and that our political leadership lacks the quality to lead the unique South Africa democracy. “Our current leaders came through a different period and now we have those old people leading a young nation,” Gumede explains.

The problem that continues to persist, he stresses, is that our politicians do not represent young people enough. “Our politicians are unable to effectively push the interests of young people. What our youth needs to do is get involved and start thinking of alternative ways to get themselves involved,” says Gumede.

He further elaborates that because of this, youth need to take it upon themselves to take action and do things for themselves, citing starting their own cooperatives and engaging as avenues young people can explore.

William Gumede, by Neo Mahame

William Gumede, by Neo Mahame

The term “Born Frees”, used to describe people born in or after 1994, has sparked debate and evoked mixed feelings over the past 20 years. When speaking to Professor Gumeded however, the debate is focussed on whether there is such a thing as a “Born Free”. “This young generation is not really born free when you consider the amount of responsibility that they were born with,” Gumede asserts.

“Our youth must look back at history as an example, the youth of 1976 make for a perfect example. Young people must set up new kinds of political organizations,” Gumede says, explaining how “Born Frees” can and must influence democracy positively. Citing the successful HIV/AIDS activist organisation Treatment Action Campaign, launched in 1998, Gumede adds, “That was a movement that was highly influenced by young people.”

A lot of young people have become disillusioned with politics because of the huge disparities that exist in South Africa. Many feel that politics has nothing to offer them and thus see no need in going out to make their mark at the ballots and becoming active citizens. “Young people need to flood the political parties or form other kinds of parties that will pressure the current political parties,” Gumede suggests.

One such example has been the new kids on the block The Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), he discloses, which is led by former ANC Youth League members Julius Malema and Floyd Shivambu. “Not to say that I support the EFF but they are an example of young people that took control and started something. That is what we desperately need in South Africa, we need to try and change politics because if they don’t change then there’s no future for young people,” Gumede adds.

One thing that our government has struggled to cope with is relating with the youth in a manner that the youth can understand and enjoy. Despite the fact that we are living in an age where our world is becoming increasingly digitised and social media is booming, government continues to ignore such channels as avenues to communicate with youth. The majority of young people dwell on social media platforms and they are saturated with information that can either be of benefit or have negative effects.

Speaking on how the newly formed Democracy Works organisation plans to use social media effectively, Gumede explains,”We have to use these modern tools to bring young people to democracy. For example, you can have youth coming up with referendums on Twitter to have their say and make a difference.”


He adds, “The problem is that nobody is listening to the youth, we need to mobilise them on issues that mean something to them, something that creates opportunities and jobs for them”.

Ultimately, Professor Gumede emphasises that the most important thing is for young people to form coalitions with other young people and  civil society organisations . Just like during the Apartheid era when young people came together to mobilise organisations such as the ANC. “We must have young people with ideas and help them assert their rights. We need quality young people to get into leadership positions,” Professor Gumede concludes.

*This article was written by Tshepang Tlhapane and posted by our chief editor. *This article was published in LiveMag, a Democracy Works media partner. To view the article on their website click here.. 

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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