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Registering eligible young voters a key issue for next year’s poll

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Picture: Timothy Bernard / African News Agency (ANA) / Taken on October 24, 2023 – IEC chairperson Mosotho Moepya speaks about the readiness to take on the task for registration. Several political parties are present to monitor the event and support this organization.The first of two voter registrations is set for 18 and 19 November 2023.

By Dirk Kotzé

The success of next year’s national and provincial elections will depend on many factors but an outstanding one is the voter turnout.

The question is: How many voters are going to participate in the elections? Five years ago, the percentage declined dramatically and another decline now would be a bad reflection on the South African democracy.

Voter turnout is the percentage of registered voters who participate in an election. All South African citizens who are 18 years and older qualify to register as voters.

In the past, the problem started before the elections, when the number of eligible voters who registered with the Electoral Commission of South Africa (IEC) continued to decline.

That trend is continuing. While the voter turnout of registered voters in the 2019 election was 65 percent, the reality is that they represented only 46 percent of the total eligible voters. It meant that the ANC’s 57 percent majority included only 26 percent of the eligible voters. In the same vein, the DA can claim only 9 percent support.

It is, therefore, clear why the percentage of registered voters has to be turned around. This weekend’s registration drive by the IEC is such an opportunity.

Online registration on the IEC’s website has been another option for some time. It is important that young eligible voters be pulled into the electoral dynamics. Their absence has been palpable. For example, 18- to 19-year-old voters constitute only 1 percent of the registered total of

26.4 million, while they are a much larger percentage of the total population. On the other hand, those in the age group 40 to 49 years, are 5.8 million, or 22 percent, of the total. One can, therefore, say that a direct, positive correlation between age and voter participation is present.

Though apathy among the youth is a global trend, the South African conditions call for their engagement. The contradiction is between the apathy and the fact that youth unemployment is high, quality educational opportunities for them are limited and many of them are not prepared for a career, while many young persons are also caught in the web of crime. It is, therefore, impossible to ignore that the issues of the youth are at the centre of politics but, ironically, they don’t see electoral engagement as a viable option for them – public protest is often more attractive.

The irony of South African politics is that the voice of the youth in organised politics is quiet. There are many organisations: the ANC Youth League, the Young Communist League, the SA Students’ Congress, the IFP Youth Brigade and the DA Students Organisation. The EFF is active in student politics but the voter turnout even in student representative council elections is low.

Surprisingly, a clear gender trend is also present. Of the 26.4 million registered voters at the moment, 55.3 percent are female and 44.7 percent male. This 10 percent difference is much more than the demographic difference of about 2 percent. Men are, therefore, less interested in elections than women.

The lower voter turnout is, therefore, a problem with two components: the youth and men. This is not the IEC’s problem, and it cannot turn it around. Political parties are the ones who will have to create an environment of interest and participation. They are confronted by a public perception of lack of trust in politics, politicians and public institutions. Politics has a bad reputation in South Africa, for being self-centred, driven by corruption and an elite establishment, with no inclination to change or improve society. The social impact of politics is mainly negative.

But one has to say also that South African politics is in a period of change. Coalition politics and a new electoral system that includes independents are important changes. Will it attract new voters? The predicament is that it will happen only once the changes become real. But an election must be the catalyst for it.

Young party members will have to be architects of the parties’ change in approach towards the public. Online and social media are part of the young culture. Music and entertainment, and a mix of social engagement and individualistic self-engagement have to be blended into the politics of the different generations. Electronic, online elections will have to be considered because it has the potential to attract more (young) voters.

Significant changes in South African politics are vital for attracting younger voters. The entrenched character of the political establishment does not provide space for them. The main political parties have their own fixed hierarchies, which are difficult to penetrate and, therefore, opportunities for young members are scarce. Coalition governments can create new opportunities and maybe create more interest for younger voters.

An unpredictable factor in next year’s election will be the independent candidates for the national and provincial parliaments. It will create an atmosphere of change, new opportunities and less dominance by hierarchical party structures. Young voters could see it as an opportunity to stand as candidates without being channelled through party procedures, internal networks and submission to internal authority.

Next year’s election might be too early to see a paradigm shift but the 2026 local government election could be the first opportunity for new dynamics and more interest in elections to become visible.

Many would argue that elections are archaic political practices and inappropriate to determine who the decision-makers in a society will be. Most people will concede that it is imperfect and a decline in voter turnout undermines its credibility, but as yet, we don’t have an alternative for it. Public participation is the essence of democracy. For most, individual sovereignty is not an alternative option.

The irony is that in a situation of declining numbers of voters, each vote has more of an impact on the total outcome. Every voter who will be at next year’s election will, therefore, have more of a say about South Africa’s future than the voters in the past. That is also the challenge for political parties, old and new – how to mobilise the voters.

Prof Dirk Kotzé is from the Department of Political Sciences at Unisa