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Open up the corridors of power to the youth – drivers of change

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By Lennon Monyae and Mbongeni Myende

As we look back and meditate on the dynamic youth of ’76, we are forced to introspect on South Africa’s youth and their role in changing their, and consequently all of our, lived experience in our beautiful country.

Tsietsi Mashinini, Mbuyisi Makhubu, Hector Pieterson and others set a fire that reignited a passion to fight against apartheid rule that had last been felt when a group of relatively young lawyers, after attempting to fight for black people’s rights through litigation, decided to form the armed wing of the African National Congress in 1961.

They embarked on the armed struggle to fight for human rights for all South Africans. The youth of the seventies, eighties and early nineties carried that mantle and ran the streets and jungles for our collective freedom until it was won.

Then the fight moved from the streets to the classrooms and boardrooms, and that youthful fervour and vigour stagnated and cooled drastically and so did our people.

The strength and trust in South African democracy and institutions has been put to the test in the May 29, 2024, elections. Voter apathy, characterised by a lack of interest or motivation to engage in the democratic process by casting a vote for a candidate or political party that aligns with one’s ideals, aspirations, values, or vision, is a topic that requires a collective discussion by the people of South Africa.

The low voter turnout amongst the youthful citizenry requires a more nuanced reflection especially in youth month and the commemoration of Youth Day, June 16, just passed.

Coincidently, June 14, 2024, added another note to the complex composition of the South African story. Cleo Wilskut, a member of parliament for the Patriotic Alliance in the National Assembly (NA), became the youngest ever MP at 20, surpassing Itumeleng Ntsube who was sworn in for the African National Congress in 2019 at 21.

She joins eleven other MPs between 20 and 29 in Parliament. At face value this looks progressive – that there is youth representation in the nation’s legislature. However, take a closer look and you realise that the demographics are a bit skewed.

The 12 MPs between 20 and 29 form 3 percent of the NA but represent 17.8 percent of the population. The age group from 40 to 49 are 27.5 percent of the NA but represent only 12.1 percent of the population, while the 50 to 59-year-olds are 27.5 percent of the NA but represent only 8.5 percent of the population. Those who are 60 to 69 are 22.5 percent of the NA but represent a measly 6 percent of the population.

This means that the youth are underrepresented in the National Assembly, but the older citizens are grossly overrepresented. So if we all understand and agree that in any society the youth are the engine that drives change and if channelled properly can improve a nation’s quality of life, why does the state body for making decisions leans away from having a sufficient voice for them?

Instead we have 22.5 percent of pensioners – who would not be trusted to keep up in the private sector, or even in civil society, because of a diminished capacity to cognitively and physically deal with the demands of work – working to make decisions in the legislature.

Since political parties are the heartbeat of meaningful representation and invited spaces for participation, all South African political parties ought to consider having quotas and genuine co-opting of young people into their ranks.

Political parties’ youth structures also need to engage young professionals from various fields to attract them to active political participation. These past elections were a missed opportunity for political parties to field youthful representatives who would have ignited fresh debates in parliament.

However, the voting patterns and trends in South Africa are not unique. The mimic the recent election turnout and voting patterns witnessed in countries governed by former liberation struggle movements elsewhere in Africa.

Southern African countries such as Namibia, Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Zambia, where political space operates on sentiments cultivated by the liberation struggle, have witnessed voters in urban areas rejecting governing parties and opting for service delivery orientated politics.

Despite the youth vote being the lowest because of apathy, their alienation from historical legacies of colonialism and apartheid and focus to pressing issues such as unemployment, security, healthcare and quality education is a key indicator.

Political parties, particularly former liberation struggle movements such as the ANC will no longer attain votes in the near future purely on struggle credentials. That era of politics is dead and gone for the new voter.

The inability of the government to provide democratic dividends in the form of service delivery will in the future cause instability for South Africa. Lessons should be taken from West African states in the Sahel such as Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger where there has been coup after coup.

The resurgence of unconstitutional changes of governments is against the backdrop of weakened confidence in electoral systems, coupled with economic strain and poor public administration.

Now this may not be within the immediate future for South Africa, however, signs such as the July Unrest of 2021 indicate sparks of instability are present within our political fabric.

Therefore, those in the upper echelons of power need to head this warning that democracy in Africa has generally suffered a setback and South Africa is no island. These waves of unconstitutional changes of government might affect South Africa, as the threat is not that far removed.

Equally, South African youth should be active agents themselves and start taking action. Lessons can be learnt from Senegal, where young people from diverse backgrounds including ethnicity, religion and economic status rallied around one common candidate, Bassirou Diomaye Faye, and came out in record breaking numbers to vote.

Coalitions among the electorate especially the youth who form the biggest block of eligible voters is necessary for the upcoming local government elections (in 2026) and the next general elections in 2029.

Young people who are one of the most marginalised constituencies could potentially create their own South African Youth Manifesto. This strategy worked in Zambia’s 2021 election where President Hikainde Hichilema won the election on a youth voter ticket after carefully responding to the interests of youth during his campaigns.

In the weeks in which the president has been sworn in and the executive is to be formed – one can only imagine, if you would indulge me – reason prevailing and that the dynamism and heroic resolve of the likes of Tsietsi Mashinini, Solomon Mahlangu, Nokuthula Simelane and others who galvanised a nation would be favoured to lead the change so desperately needed in South Africa.

More than just representation, youth exuberance tends to bring with it more action and movement than the rhetoric based politics of the elderly. And the implementation of initiatives such as the National Development Plan, get considerable buy in when fuelled by people that will be around to see if materialise.

* Lennon Monyae is a research associate and youth liaison officer at African Peer Review Mechanism Continental Secretariat. Mbongeni Myende is an independent consultant based in Johannesburg.

** The views expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of The African