It has been just over 45 years since the 1976 Soweto Uprising – an integral moment in the call for democracy in an apartheid led South Africa. June 16 remains to be a monumental date in our country’s history. It not only represents our country’s commitment to democracy and the lives sacrificed in order for us to all reap the benefits of democracy, but it is also a day that requires one to be reflective of the democratic position of our country – particularly the relationship between youth and democracy.
In most developing countries there is a lack of youth participation in politics. The primary cause for this comes from the state’s incapability to construct and/or develop sufficient platforms that encourage meaningful involvement of citizens in political processes – particularly the youth. This then leads to the youth feeling excluded from political processes and not having the means to express their grievances. They, then, tend to resolve protests and youth activism. The most ill-fated consequence of the youth sentiment of being isolated from the affairs of the state is that they are often persuaded into engaging in violent acts against the government as a result of their deprivation.
Youths’ political participation and access to opportunity for socio-economic development remain an important call in Africa. It is common thought that young people have been acknowledged for their creative skills and innovative ideas. When we look at the major political changes and dynamism, youth is at the center of furcula. There continues to be a need for the youth to be empowered politically – it is crucial for social and economic development. However, systemic exclusion of the youth in political affairs and the participation of behaviour of young people in contemporary Africa has serious consequences, which have resulted in ‘non-political’ activism today. The youth are a significant share of the global population and are therefore agents of change and development. There is the need for the youth to be included and be actively involved in political affairs particularly in the decision-making process of the states. Even youth are acknowledged as key agents of socio-economic factors and political movers of society – youth remain marginalized and excluded from the important political decision-making processes.
Africa’s social equality is challenged with the increasing issue of lack of participation of the youth in political affairs. This is more obvious amongst young people in South Africa. The collective development of the ‘youth bulge’ has become more conspicuous in South Africa. The engagement and empowerment of youth in state politics is imperative in building a sense of responsiveness and accountability in government.
A qualitative study the Centre for Social Development in Africa conducted among young people aged on average 17.5 years old in 2015, called “Youth transitions in South
African communities” shows that young South Africans do care about politics and their role as citizens, but were not convinced that the government would or could address their concerns. Across the focus groups we observed young people who were surprisingly well-informed about current affairs. They held passionately expressed opinions about various political issues – from xenophobia to the government’s failure to provide basic services such as electricity, water and sanitation. They also had real concerns about the problems facing their communities; including crime and unemployment. Perhaps it was this awareness that informed their views on formal political processes. The report also found that “most of the participants indicated an unwillingness to vote”
Emerging research on political and civic participation among youth in South Africa points to the fact that youth find formal political processes not only frustrating and alienating but also less likely to yield desired results. It is not surprising, therefore, that young citizens in South Africa are often apathetic and feel marginalised, sceptical and distrustful of political parties – particularly politicians. These factors hinder their full, effective and active participation in political and electoral processes. Furthermore, young people often feel disempowered by the same political actors who should be empowering them.
South Africa’s transition from an authoritarian regime to a democratic dispensation was stalled by a paradoxical political situation that prevented the effective consolidation of democracy. A stagnating economy, abetted by high levels of inequality, threatened the transition to democracy. Many factors – including but not limited to high unemployment (particularly among the youth); high poverty among blacks; poor and, in some instances, non-existent service delivery; and a corrupt and self-interested political elite – seem to have convinced the youth that voting is simply a waste of time. Poor governance problems have resulted in low levels of confidence in the ability of the political system to curb vices such as corruption. Governance problems are major disincentives to political participation. South Africa’s youth are generally seen as disengaged from conventional forms of political participation such as voting and contacting elected officials, yet they are also seen to be disproportionately more likely to engage in protests and political violence. Interestingly, some party representatives saw this disengagement by young people as a betrayal of the youth of previous generations, who were involved in the Soweto Uprising in 1976 and, later, the street protests of the 1980s.
There is a mistrust that exists between politicians and the electorate, on the one hand, and between the younger generation and the older generation, on the other. Young people generally place blame on the political system and see it as responsible for their misfortunes. An unsupportive political system is probably the biggest threat to youth participation in modern-day politics and political processes. Youth apathy and political fatalism have increased over the years due to poor governance, the generational factor and general disinterest in political matters.
Interestingly young people are more comfortable engaging in other forms of activism, such as service delivery protests and protests at university campuses, which have become commonplace occurrences in South Africa. The youth see these protests as a platform to express their anger and disgust with public sector corruption, poor governance and poor service. However, these forms of activism usually fall outside the purview of the law, and often turn out to be violent and chaotic. This militant approach was justified by another participant as necessary to “get them to hear us”.
While South Africa remains a democratic model in the region and the continent more broadly, the realisation that the country’s young population has lost faith in political systems, and electoral processes in particular, is concerning and does not bode well for democracy. Political parties and electoral bodies must strive to create conditions that allow for the effective participation of all age groups in politics, including young citizens. The rise to prominence of Robert (“Bobi Wine”) Kyagulanyi Ssentamu in Uganda, Nelson Chamisa in Zimbabwe and Julius Malema in South Africa is confirmation that young people are beginning to question the status quo and are pushing the limits of old systems. These dynamics demonstrate how generational politics can shift the political landscape and possibly bring countries within tipping points of new crises.
By Yanga Malotana: Andrew Mellon Scholar, Communication Strategist & Research Assistant. All views expressed in this piece are independent to the writer and not necessarily held by DDP.