SA’s youth vote: Will they turn out on May 29?

Declining voter turnout raises concerns as youth's potential influence on elections grows.

When one considers that men and women between the ages of 18 and 34 make up about 30% of this year’s electorate, the importance of the youth vote on 29 May becomes amplified.

Young people have already shown interest in the direction and governance of the country and have registered to vote – and this has the potential to significantly influence the outcome of the national and provincial elections.

However, declining voter turnouts in the past 15 years raises a question over whether registered voters will ultimately cast their ballots and, therefore, influence the outcome.

In 2009, 77% of registered voters cast their ballots in the national election, but 10 years later, only 66% did so. In 2021, the turnout in the municipal elections was just 46%.

Statistics from the Electoral Commission of South Africa (IEC) also show that there isn’t necessarily a correlation between voter registration and voting. Voter registrations between 2009 and 2019 increased by 15.4%, but the number of votes cast declined by 1.4%.

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The declining voter turnout is a weighty concern for Kagiso Trust, which was founded in 1985 by illustrious anti-apartheid activists who carried their active citizenship into South Africa’s democratic future.

Some of its founding trustees include anti-apartheid theologians Desmond Tutu, Beyers Naudé and Frank Chikane, who, among other things, struggled for the right to vote.

When the archbishop voted for the first time in 1994, at the age of 62, he was quoted as saying it felt as good as falling in love. This right was precious because it was hard-won.

Tutu was vilified, detained and had his passport confiscated, Naudé endured a seven-year banning, and Chikane survived torture and an assassination attempt. Their experiences were not isolated but were part of the apartheid regime’s efforts to silence dissenting voices.

Other activists lost their lives and liberty, families were torn apart, and many were forced into exile.

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Thirty years into democracy, though, memories of the struggle generation’s sacrifices are fading. More than half of South Africa’s population was born after 1994, meaning they weren’t brought up with names like Tutu, Naudé and Chikane ringing in their ears. They can’t be accused of having forgotten the uprising against apartheid because the chances are they have never known much about it.

And the politics they have witnessed while growing up have not inspired their trust.

This is the background to a pre-election initiative by Kagiso Trust, which seeks to use the stories of its founders to educate voters – particularly the youth – about how exercising the right to vote is not only vital for democracy, but an important way to honour the sacrifices of anti-apartheid activists.

The #RememberMe campaign will bring the stories of the struggle generation to modern ears on social media and the radio.

A nationwide voter education campaign, in partnership with the South African Democracy Elections Network, the KwaZulu-Natal Christian Council and the #Unmute Civil Society Initiative, will support it.

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The youth are the focus of the campaign because, as Afrobarometer pointed out in a recent publication, “Africa’s trajectory stands to gain immensely from its youth if their energies and skills are harnessed effectively and are given the space and opportunity to contribute to public policy and decision-making”.

Writing in a Brookings Institute publication in 2019, social entrepreneur Thione Niang developed the argument: “With 60% of its 1.25 billion people under the age of 25 years old, Africa has the youngest population in the world. However, this young majority is not being represented by the government.

“This fundamental disconnect between policymakers and youth amplifies problems and causes African society, in general, to digress and feel dated.”

It can be argued that today’s youth feel marginalised in a way that is not dissimilar to the way the majority was marginalised during the struggle for democracy. The difference is that today a solution already exists; their voices can be heard, and they have the means to shape society.

The times may have changed, but a vote has the same power today as it did in 1994. Remember those who spent decades dreaming of making their mark on a ballot paper. Vote on 29 May.

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Ntsaba is Kagiso Trust chair