In recognition of the role South Africa’s youth played in ending apartheid and bringing about democracy, June is recognised as Youth Month, while June 16 specifically is celebrated as National Youth Day. On this day in 1976 school children in Soweto – and soon the rest of the country – rose up against the apartheid government in what became known as the 1976 Soweto Uprising.
It set in motion a chain of events that 18 years later, in 1994, would result in South Africa becoming a democracy. The role of the 1976 youth and later generations of young people in bringing about change and shaping a better future for themselves in their own country, should never be underestimated. But now that we are a vibrant democracy with systems and processes in place that allow everyone to participate in shaping our destiny, should the streets still be the place where the youth ‘vote’ with stones and burning barricades?
This June 16, as every year before, the politicians and others were again hard at work addressing rallies and delivering their habitual June 16 speeches. The official Youth Day theme was ‘Promoting sustainable livelihoods and resilience of young people for a better tomorrow’. Starkly defining this theme, is South Africa’s appalling unemployment figure of 32.9 % (Statistics SA, May 2023) that is among the highest in the world, and which is even worse at the expanded unemployment rate of 42.4%. At the same time youth unemployment (aged 15-34 years) has increased and stands at 46.5% in Q1:2023 (narrow definition).
Almost half of all young South Africans cannot find employment, and that in an increasingly youthful nation. It was therefore arguably appropriate for politicians to focus on creating jobs for young people this year, which they did. But job creation promises have been a recurring theme among politicians and parties campaigning before elections, only to fall off the radar once the elections are over.
With an important general election coming up next year, glaringly absent from the speeches this June 16, was an equally important topic, if not a closely linked one: educating and mobilising our politically disengaged youth to actively participate in our formal democratic processes so that they can be a key factor in shaping their own and their country’s destiny. That could include job creation.
It is no passing coincidence that a growing number of South Africans eligible to vote are withdrawing from participating in formal politics and elections, and the so-called stayaway vote is rapidly growing in size. A major portion of these disillusioned potential voters are young people aged between 18 and 34. Many of them have never voted. They are the future; they are also the fastest growing adult population segment. One can only wonder what would have been had the youth of 1976 not taken their future in their own hands.
It is commonly accepted that these young people have become disillusioned with the political system and the fact, in their view, that nothing changes. They have lost interest and have disengaged as “the system” offers them little or nothing, often not even hope. It is likely and probable that the government’s inability to grow the economy and create jobs – especially jobs for young people – is a major contributor to the youth’s disillusionment.
However, it seems South Africa’s young people have only withdrawn from engaging in the formal political system and elections, as they often still play a fundamental role in the extra-parliamentary, non-formal sphere where they vote with their feet or unleash displays of their anger.
For instance, youths are often at the forefront of community protests over service delivery failures. During the last decade large-scale student protests on tertiary education campuses succeeded in getting government to change its student loan model, still a work in progress. Sporadically other student protests have resulted in various improvements in conditions or have brought attention to the slow pace of transformation.
This is both good and bad. Good in the sense that the youth still care enough about political, social or economic issues to actively engage, even if outside formal democratic systems and processes. It is bad in the sense that it risks entrenching a political culture in which formal, peaceful democratic processes are completely bypassed in favour of sporadic protests over specific issues that often lead to violence and destruction of property or deny fellow citizens their democratic freedoms and rights. South Africa has already had many examples of the latter.
Nonetheless, consider the following statistics. (Data from 2019 is used when the last general election took place as opposed to municipal elections in which the determining factors are somewhat different, voter turnouts are generally lower, and because we have a general election next year. For these purposes youth are generally defined as those between the ages of 18 and 34 unless indicated otherwise. Allowance also has to be made for the different age bracketing approaches used by the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) and Statistics South Africa and.)
In 2019, South Africa had a population of 58.78 million people, of which the youth segment (aged 18-34) was almost one third, or 17.84 million. In that year, the total voting age population stood at 35 868 190, while the number of registered voters was 26 756 649 or 74.6% – 25% did not bother to register.
At the time only 5 640 330 or 21% of youths aged 18-29 years were registered as voters. If approximately half of those in the 30-39-year age band of registered voters of 6 685 439 persons are added to this number, then between 8 and 9 million youths in total were registered as voters in 2019 out of the total youth population (18-34) of 17.84 million. This means in 2019 at least 8 840 000 youths (18-34) did not bother to register as voters, let alone vote. In the 2014 national elections, the percentage of registered voters aged 18 and 19 was just 33% – well below the 73% average. Of the registered youths in 2019, only 3 225 469 in the 18-29 segment actually voted.
By the time of South Africa’s next general election next year, the overall population will be close to 62 million, and these numbers will have changed significantly, but most likely not the trends. These trends include, apart from a diminishing youth segment participating in the elections, an overall decline in voter turnout. However, along with population growth, the number of registered voters has increased, but not dramatically – from 23 181 997 in 2009, to 25 390 150 in 2014, and 26 756 649 in 2019. It is likely to increase further next year.
But voter turnouts on election days have been in steady decline – 66% turnout in 2019, compared with 73% in 2014, 77% in 2009, 76% in 2004, and 89% in 1999. This decline is likely to continue next year. It is a dangerous trend for any young democracy. Writing the foreword in the 2019 IEC election report, IEC chairperson Glen Mashinini summed it up well.
He said: “The declining participation of voters in national and provincial elections in South Africa – especially young voters – is another area of concern for all stakeholders. The fact that this is another sign of a maturing democracy and is in line with international trends is cold comfort. We must – together as partners in electoral democracy – find ways to reverse this trend and bring young people into the democratic framework we fought so hard to achieve.”
It is indeed a trend in many countries that voter turnouts are declining, and that the youth are becoming more disengaged. In South Africa it was long thought that the decline in youth participation could, like in many other countries, simply be put down to apathy among the young. But just ahead of the 2016 municipal elections, new research by the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) proved differently. ISS researcher Lauren Tracey’s 49 one-on-one interviews and 277 focus-group discussions with over 2,000 high school and tertiary level students found that disillusionment with the current political landscape was the real reason why they would not vote. They were especially concerned over four major problems – unemployment, corruption, poor infrastructure, and poor education.
Mashinini’s words also bring to mind what former US president Bill Clinton said about this phenomenon back in 2000: “I think sometimes our young people believe either that government is not a good thing to be involved in … or that if they did get involved, what they did wouldn’t make a difference. Nothing could be further from the truth. We are around here as a nation after more than 224 years because more than half the time, more than half the people turned out to be right on the really big issues.”
In essence the ISS survey’s respondents were saying: we give up, we are walking away from our concerns and problems, let someone else deal with it. But just think, with our large youth component in a population that is getting ever younger, what a difference the youth could make if they participated fully in the democratic processes, and got it right most of the time, as Clinton said.
How does one reverse the trend?
So, the question is, how does one convince the youth that voting or other forms of participating in formal political processes is not a waste of time, and that their active engagement and participation is vital for the good health and future survival of our democracy?
To try and discuss all the potential remedies in some detail here, is impossible. But the answer obviously starts with education. The IEC does indeed focus significantly on voter education – also aimed at the youth – but it can be argued that far more can be done. But it will first have to learn to speak the language of the youth in forums where it will reach them.
Institutions of higher education, the media, the public broadcaster, private broadcasters, the entertainment industry, Parliament, the business sector, trade unions, national and provincial governments, political parties, and individual politicians, among others, can all play a far bigger role to bring this about.
Role models and heroes in sport, arts and entertainment can be drawn in. Organisations involved in fostering and promoting democratic values and systems, like the DDP, can all engage in such an effort, which should become a permanent feature of our society. Civil society in general should employ all its organisations, sectors, and resources and mobilise the youth en mass to become involved in breathing new life into our democratic processes and systems. Investing in our youth and our democracy, is an investment in our long-term future. There can be no better investment.
But above all, the politicians should set the example that will inspire young people. In South Africa’s current troubled context, that will be a huge challenge, but it can be done. It could have started with the speeches the politicians made this past June 16. Instead of once again making wild promises of jobs for young people – a cynical proposition so close to an election – they should have invited and convinced the youth to take part in elections and other democratic processes so they themselves can take charge and can bring about the changes that will provide those jobs, among other things. They should have impressed upon the younger generation that without its youth, any democracy is a lost cause.
Stef Terblanche is a Cape Town-based political analyst and journalist. He writes in his personal capacity.