Sweet spots will be evoked and will range from free education, to jobs and poverty reduction, and a slew of promises in between. The youth vote, as it is popularly referred to, is a big and powerful bloc, particularly as South Africa has a youthful population, estimated at roughly 35% of its 57 million people. Perhaps this big number is ramped up by the exaggeration of the definition of youth, who range from 15 to 35 years.

While political parties may be looking for political fodder amongst youth, it would be detrimental for any of them to assume apathy. Protest and use of social media as forms of expression and participation are real – and growing. Perhaps these may not count as democratic participation in the conventional sense, but participate, the young do.

The “born-frees” or the Mandela generation, are less encumbered by the past, unlike parents and grandparents. They have grown up in a deracialising society, with access to freedoms and privileges and universal suffrage. Yet, if the voting behaviour of the young is analysed over the last decade in both national and local government elections, it is notable in survey data that the youth vote is on the decline.

In the 2014 national elections, while the total voting population decreased from the 2009 elections by at least 4%, to 73%, it is notable that fewer young people registered to vote – never mind turned up at the polling stations. The reasons may be two-fold. Firstly, if and how young people understand the power of the vote is key to democratic participation. Secondly, young people cynically see a future that presents diminishing returns. For many, it is perhaps the latter, where lack of quality education, a sagging economy and job prospects weigh them down.

The most recent Spectator Indexcasts South Africa in the dubious position of having the highest youth unemployment rate in the world, standing at a staggering 52%. A more telling – and equally depressing – set of statistics is contained in an August 2018 Department of Higher Education and Training, Fact Sheet on ‘NEETs’ (Not in Employment, Education and Training). The numbers of young NEETs (15 to 35) stands at a confounding 7.8 million of the total population in 2017. The Fact Sheet states, in sum, “information about NEETs is used to monitor the labour market and the social dynamics of the marginalised people in society. It is generally acknowledged, both nationally and internationally, that NEETs constitute one of the greatest threats to social stability. Researchers and the media frequently raise the spectre of idle youths as a ticking social time bomb, and there is now heightened awareness of the young people who are NEET to cause serious social disruption”.

The dismal situation outlined above may well be reason for withdrawal of youth from political life, as may be the cynicism about levels of corruption, State capture and poor and declining infrastructure. All of which will diminish the life chances of young people and at worst, burden this generation with lifetime debt. The weight of the ‘sins of the fathers’ on young people is a real prospect in South Africa, as commission after commission and investigation after investigation reveal the corrosive effects of corruption. It is no wonder then that this cohort of voters perceive politicians as not worthy of their vote, nor the electoral system of proportional representation, as an enabling one. Direct accountability and immediacy of response is how young people engage. Whether through online petitions, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or through protests and demonstrations – which have increased exponentially in the last few years, as attested to by Municipal IQ’s Hotspot Monitor.

All the above, even the depressing references to NEETS, are real and require urgent action. What is clear is that for young people – irrespective of race, class or other divides – both promises, and crucially, action and the fulfilment of economic aspirations, quality leadership and good education, rank highest. Selection between policy options contained in manifestos rank lower. Material interest is thus a significant factor in the decision to firstly vote or not and subsequently, which party to vote for.

In South Africa, the struggle for universal suffrage was a hard-won right and is contained in the founding provisions of the Constitution. Voting patterns in the post-apartheid Mandela-era were certainly informed by race and ethnic identity. While this pattern is still present in some pockets, voting behaviour of young people is proving that they are not necessarily partisan or have a long-held affinity to a political party. Their positions and political priorities are nimbler and more mobile. Political parties must therefore work harder and more sincerely to influence this demographic. They must be viewed as a serious political constituency with influence. Political parties must speak to the interest of young people, about a future that is enabling and encompassing – not one that is destructive and racially divisive.

The question for young people looking to 8 May 2019 is: “What future would you like to see, and how will you get there? How will you nourish a future that is fulfilling and enabling?  A future steeped in the rich and embracing values of the Constitution…”

By Ms Zohra Dawood, Director

{phocadownload view=file|id=95|text=Download the PDF|target=s}