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On Monday November 1st, all roads lead to the polls – or do they? 

According to the Independent Electoral Commission (I.E.C) South Africans between the ages of 20 – 29 make up an estimated 10.8 million of our 60,294,751 population. That is a significant chunk. In fact, statistics show that South Africa currently boasts one of the largest youth populations in the world! 

The I.E.C. statistics also indicate that 9 million South Africans who are of voting age, have not registered to vote. 46% of that nine million are people between the ages of 20 -29.

If the youth makes up the largest percentage of our population, why is this not reflected in our electoral process? 

According to our politicians the youth of today are either, “politically apathetic” or “irresponsible drunken delinquents” who have no regard for their democratic duty to vote. A privilege that their ancestors fought and died for. 

This sentiment makes my late thirty something year old self wince as I struggle to reconcile the nostalgia of the little girl excitedly waving at my then forty something year old mother as she set out to cast her vote for the very first time in 1994, with the current reality of our political climate and my increasingly cynical disposition. Are the youth dismissive of their blood stained democratic privilege/responsibility to vote? Or has the government misused and abused their privilege and responsibility to serve? 

The low youth voter turnout is not unique to South Africa. Globally youth turnout is decreasing with each passing election cycle. So, where’s the disconnect? Political sociologist from the Center for Inclusive Democracy, Dr. Mindy Romero addresses the issue in her TedX talk aptly titled “The Power of the Youth Vote.” Romero says that political analysts mistakenly deduce the decrease in youth turnout as the lack of interest in politics altogether. Research however shows otherwise. 

So what are some of the core issues? 

  • Political structures, systems, and regulations around the electoral process are currently set up in a way that makes it next to impossible for young people to engage thus excluding their voices and issues. For example, citizens are required to register to vote. Registration is connected to one’s physical address and young people tend to move around a lot. Therefore each time there’s an election, the probability of a young person moving between the voter registration period and the actual election is highly likely. 
  • There’s little to no outreach or engagement by political parties during the campaign cycle because young people are seen as “unlikely” voters. Managing director of the NPO Youth Lab, Pearl Pillay told Quartz Africa that young people in the townships and rural areas felt unseen and left out by political parties. “When you don’t see yourself in the system, you opt out,”  added Pillay
  • There is a misconception that young people are not politically knowledgeable or fiscally impacted by elections. One only has to log onto Twitter to know that this is a false narrative. The youth of today is very politically astute and engaged. Locally we can point to their political civic engagement around issues such as but not limited to G.B.V, Fees Must, and Police brutality. 

Young people are in fact very aware of their democratic privilege and responsibility to vote. Their current absence from the electoral process has nothing to do with apathy and everything to do with the fact that unlike their predecessors they do not carry the same burden of nostalgia and therefore cannot be politically manipulated by the struggle narrative. They understand the gravity of their decision and they want their vote to actually move the country in the right direction.

In her 2009 Ted Talk titled “The Danger of a Single Narrative” author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie states, “To create a single story, show a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again, and that is what they become”. 

If political parties don’t critically evaluate their apathy towards engaging the youth. Young people on the other hand need to galvanize their power by lobbying for their issues and holding those they vote into power accountable if we are to end the constant recycling narrative of the disengaged youth vs. the disingenuous politician every time South Africa heads to the polls. 

As cliche as it sounds, we are in fact the answer to our problems and our ancestors’ prayers. So, let’s ensure that all roads do lead to the polls come Monday, November 1st 2021.