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The youth factor will shape voting scenarios

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Picture: Itumeleng English / Independent Newspaper / Taken on February 4, 2024 – Residents in Eikenhof south of Gauteng visit the Siyaphambili Daycare and preschool where registrations to vote are held, ahead of the general elections. In a dramatic departure from a dim view of youth political participation, the Electoral Commission of South Africa describes the recent final voter registration weekend as a resounding success, with 77 percent of people registered to vote being youth, the writer says.

By Sethulego Matebesi

The participation of young people in formal political processes like elections is fundamental for democracy. However, disengaged youth in electoral processes has been a long-standing problem in South Africa.

In a dramatic departure from this dim view of youth political participation, the Electoral Commission of South Africa (IEC) described the recent final voter registration weekend as a resounding success, with 77 percent of people registered to vote being the youth. But we know that voter registration does not equate to voting.

Although this assertion is true, whether such a concern is premature is a debate for another day.

The voters roll provides a glimpse into the potential scenarios of the polls:

ANC’s electoral performance

During the 2019 elections, the ANC retained its position as the governing party despite a decline in its overall electoral support. The party’s electoral performance has been subject to various factors and considerations, including its historical role in the Struggle, internal challenges, economic and societal issues, competition from opposition parties, and changing demographics.

The demographic shifts, particularly among younger voters, will prompt the ANC and many other political parties to adapt their strategies to resonate with this population segment. This strategy is becoming even more pressing for the ANC if one considers that the latest Ipsos poll shows a dramatic decline in electoral support.

But is it plausible, taking into consideration external factors (campaign developments, news events, and shifts in public opinion) and contextual factors (the broader political landscape), that the ANC’s electoral fortunes will plummet to 40 percent as predicted by the latest poll? Polls provide valuable insights into voter preferences but should be approached with caution. I, therefore, leave it to the reader to decide the plausibility of this prediction.

One of the most sobering and fascinating conclusions about this scenario is that the ANC will have to effectively mobilise its base, address the concerns of disillusioned voters, and, more importantly, present a compelling vision for the future of the youth to draw their support.

Influence of the youth

The youth, comprising a significant portion of the voters roll, hold immense potential to shape the outcome of the elections should the recent surge in activism and political awareness translate into electoral participation. Therefore, to tap into this segment, political parties first need to understand the concerns of the youth.

Unlike many African democracies, the South African constitutional and legal frameworks remain among the most robust tools to develop and mandate youth-friendly electoral policies and practices. This legislative environment to foster youth inclusion, participation, and representation in electoral processes must be accompanied by addressing the pertinent challenges they face, for example, unemployment, limited access to quality education, and social issues such as violence and substance abuse.

In addition, the youth are embedded in a culture of digitalisation and are often at the forefront of driving digital transformation in various aspects of their life. Recognising the appeal of digital platforms to the youth, political parties pretend to embrace these platforms by using them as channels for youth activism and advocacy. Many may have fallen for this in the past.

But for today’s youth, digital skills are increasingly essential for employment, entrepreneurship and innovation. Two questions are pertinent. Which political party today is engaging the youth on their terms? Which party will equip the youth with digital competencies to thrive in the modern job market. After all, youth participation and representation in institutional political processes and policy-making remain relatively low despite its potential to build stable societies.

For example, only 6 percent of MPs in the Parliament are young. Youth representation continues to be trivialised when one looks at the average age of party leaders. Such an under-representation of the youth may weaken faith not so much in political parties as in democracy and electoral processes.

While the chances of the ANC securing 50 percent of the votes remain uncertain, the youth’s influence on the outcome of the elections cannot be ignored. Young voters will determine whether the ANC – facing an onslaught from opposition parties, including those led by their former president and secretary-general – can regain its former glory or a more fragmented political landscape emerges.

Parties must listen to the voice of the youth and work towards building a more inclusive and prosperous nation.

Sethulego Matebesi is associate professor and head of the Department of Sociology at the University of the Free State