Globally, voter participation is considered one of the primary cornerstones of democracy and the simplest method towards guaranteeing that a political system is representative. With the youth accounting for approximately 35% of the South African population, youth engagement in political processes is crucial in ensuring the development of a stable democracy and the formulation of policies that reflect the current and future needs of young individuals.
However, the 2018 South African Presidential election was a watershed moment in the country’s post-democratic era. According to a 2020 study by Schulz-Herzenberg, for the first time since 1994, voter turnout fell below the 50% mark, with only 46% of eligible voters heading to the polls. What was further astonishing, was that as per the study, only 19% of eligible 18-19-year-olds registered to vote, and of this 19%, only 15% cast their vote. Furthermore, between the ages of 20-29 and 30-39, only 30% and 43% respectively exercised their civic duty. In a country historically marked by a fight towards democracy, these statistics are concerning, particularly considering that the youth (i.e. individuals between 18-24 years old) make up the bulk of the current voter base. It is thus evident, that a civic deficit exists in South Africa, and this deficit must be addressed to safeguard our democracy.
Characterising civic deficit: youth apathy or youth alienation?
Civic deficit is defined as a shortfall in actively completing one’s responsibilities and duties towards their country/town. Here, lack of participation in political processes is considered a cause of this deficit.
In South Africa, low voter turnout amongst youth is often attributed to voter apathy, whereby young individuals are characterised as being ‘uninterested’ in politics. As a young person myself, I can confidently proclaim, that low voter turnout extends beyond being uninterested in politics. We, the youth, are interested in decision-making on aspects that affect our public life. We too have concerns surrounding our future and its sustainability, often reflected in our use of protests (e.g. #Feesmustfall) as a means to express these concerns and as a mode of communication with leaders. As such, voter apathy is rather fuelled by an accumulation of various factors, centred around our alienation from politicians, and thus elections. Examples of these factors include but are not limited to – youth dissatisfaction with the political and economic processes due to high youth unemployment, distrust in election processes due to corruption, feeling that politicians and parties lack accountability, and the existence of a political vacuum due to the absence of young representatives on candidate lists or politicians/parties that represent the youth.
Consequently, the youth feel politically alienated. The youth recognise the need and importance to act, but, are restricted by our sense of insignificance, whereby it feels as though our vote does not influence decisions made by politicians/political parties. This is further re-iterated by Tessa Dooms (2023), who states that the youth are not apathetic, rather, voting has not produced positive results, leading to the unwillingness to exchange their vote given the lack of value. However, as disenchanted as we maybe, we should not allow these problems to stop us from participating in political matters.
Importance of voting
It is acknowledged that as per Chapter 2 of the Constitution, citizens are free to make their own political choices. However, as the future of South Africa, it is fundamental that young individuals recognise that by registering and voting, our vote has the power to bring about change and address our concerns.
The implications of not voting are detrimental. Firstly, choosing to abstain, results in a lack of representation and hence, the implementation of policies that disproportionately affect the youth. Second, voter abstinence rewards bad behaviour by politicians and encourages a lack of transparency and accountability amongst our leaders. Lastly, and most importantly, by not voting, we are ‘automatically voting’ to maintain the status quo, we accept that we are happy with the current state of the country and policies/decisions implemented by politicians.
Thus, to address the current civic deficit plaguing South Africa and encourage voter participation amongst the youth, civic education is necessary.
The Role of civic education
Democracy is sustained by informed, effective and responsible citizens. Civic education is hence essential, as it equips the citizenry with information to participate in democratic processes, empowering citizens to go beyond being passive instruments of the state. Here, civic education enables one to be a conscious political player by providing a platform for the dissemination of information relating to the election process and facts. In doing so, civic education supports the development of political socialisation, particularly formulation of political values and attitudes.
Second, civic education provides citizens with social competency skills (e.g. readiness to accept responsibility), allowing one to develop and make critical judgements. These skills are beneficial as citizens are in a more informed position to comprehend their responsibilities. Additionally, civic education helps citizens understand their interests and interests other groups. The more knowledge we attain, the more citizens connect and defend their interests. As such, through collective and active collaboration in political decision-making, citizens gain insight into the basic principles of democracy, empowering them to become engaged in politics, and citizens are in a better position to utilise the electoral system as a means to exercise their political will and their right to vote.
Third, William Galston (2020) states that the more knowledge we obtain on the election process, the less citizens have generalised feelings of mistrust and fear of participating in public life. It can also alter our perspectives on specific issues (e.g. abstaining from voting), as they are less fearful. Moreover, Galston (2020) found that civic education promotes political participation, as the more likely to participate in political affairs to protect their interests.
Lastly, civic education plays a vital role in elections, as it aids in forming civil societies within a country. Civil societies can ensure that elections are free and fair by enhancing electoral operations and providing a means for checks and balances. As such, civic education helps address concerns surrounding corruption. Moreover, civil education, used in conjunction with civil society dialogues, can be used by citizens to strengthen their position and interact with leaders to make their voices heard. This may also reveal the needs of a target group, thus, influencing policy.
In conclusion, the sustainability of our democracy is facing an unprecedented challenge. With the 2024 elections around the corner, the youth must recognise the power that we hold. The Bill of Rights enshrines us with the right to vote. It is our duty to not neglect this responsibility.
Ms Tyesha Pillay is a Communications Strategist at the DDP and writes in her capacity.