In South Africa and all around the world young people appear less willing to vote. During the 2019 elections, very few young people voted or even registered to vote. As the 2021 municipal elections approach, it appears that South Africa will once again see very little participation from young voters. As Quartz Africa described after the 2019 national elections in South Africa, “disillusionment has set in, particularly among those who are as old as South Africa’s democratic regime—the twenty somethings.”

According to the Daily Maverick, “young people register, and vote, at far lower rates than their older counterparts” even though they make up a disproportionately large number of the electorate. 9 million South Africans who were eligible to vote during the 2019 national elections did not register to vote. According to the Independent Electoral Commission, most of this group were young people, with 46% aged 20 to 29. Many of the young people who did register to vote in this election did not end up voting, despite the Electoral Commission’s efforts to try and convince younger people to participate. According to eNCA, even though people “aged between 16 and 29 make up more than 400,000 of the 433,000 new registrations to vote in this year’s local government elections”, youth apathy is still a big problem in this election. The Daily Maverick explains that “registration figures for the forthcoming 2021 municipal elections indicate that the situation has worsened. Approximately 9% of 18 to 19-year olds and 44% of 20 to 29-year olds are registered and able to participate in November’s election.”

While there are many reasons why young people would choose not to vote, there seems to be a general feeling of hopelessness and powerlessness among many young people. “I am one of the young people that have registered to vote, but I will not be voting this year. From the work that we have done and the places we have been to, there is a general sense of hopelessness”, said Pearl Pillay, managing director of the NPO Youth Lab, about the 2019 elections. This organisation put together a Manifesto unpacking parties’ youth-centric policies. According to Quartz Africa, many young people living in townships and rural areas feel “left out by South African party politics”. This feeling of hopelessness also appears to be the reason that many young people are not voting in the 2021 municipal elections. According to eNCA, young people living in some of Gauteng’s townships say that they are not planning on voting because “politicians have not kept their promises”. The Daily Maverick also explains that low turnout rates among young people is a global phenomenon. “Undoubtedly, young South Africans are shaped by factors that influence young people everywhere, which include changes to communication technology and media consumption, weaker party loyalties and the disinclination among younger generations to regard voting as a civic duty.” There are also likely to be “country-specific reasons that explain the reluctance to vote among younger South Africans and this has turned our attention to the impact of high unemployment rates, poor governance experiences and rising political distrust and disaffection towards political parties in particular. Together, these factors may produce a jaundiced view of representational procedures like elections and political actors”.

While many young people’s apathy towards elections is understandable, it can also hurt this group in the long term. As Daily Maverick explains, “the participation gap between young and older people at elections does the former a great disservice. It invites a scenario of “mutual neglect” — a term coined by Martin Wattenberg in his 2016 book, Is Voting for Young People? — where young people ignore formal electoral politics and, in turn, are ignored by politicians. For as long as they are inactive at the polls, there is less incentive for South Africa’s political elites to pay attention to their policy preferences and political views and they will be largely disregarded”.

Photo: Madeeha Hazarvi

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I’m Kirsten, a law student who loves writing, making spreadsheets and consuming an unhealthy amount of caffeine.
I love writing about student issues and current events.