South Africa: Youth Take to the Streets but Stay Away From the Polls

opinion

The elections have come and gone and many eligible young people either did not register of make their mark. Is it simply a case of apathy, or is there a different political game at play?

Earlier this month, South Africans went back to the polls for the sixth time in the democratic era.

But millions of young South Africans, who are eligible to vote, refused to register for their hard-won right. According to a GroundUp report, the number of 18 and 19-year-olds who registered to vote was down by almost half from the 2014 general election. Five years ago, 646 313 voters in this age category registered to vote. This year the number had dropped to 341 236 people. Why is this? Can it simply be put down to apathy? Or is the decision to stay away from the polls political in and of itself?

I think the mechanisms of the political system have been built to exclude young people, and the few that will ever sit in the seats of parliament are those who have proven their loyalty to their respective political organisations. Take for instance newly sworn in MPs 23-year old Sibongiseni Ngcobo from KwaZulu-Natal or Naledi Chirwa, 25, of the EFF or the ANCs Nompendulo Mkhatshwa, also 25. The last two were very active in the Fees Must Fall movement.

And outside the walls of parliament, on our campuses, young people who are politically aligned are also getting involved and making their mark.

In institutions of higher learning students are constantly bombarded with messages from political organisations that are hosting dialogues and political lectures as a way to win the youth over. I've noticed that over the past few years as universities move towards the election of their respective Student Representative Councils, political organisations are even more visible on campuses complete with stands, banners and posters. The South African Students Congress, the EFF student command and the Democratic Alliance's Student Organisation are the biggest organisations in student politics.

I'm not sure how healthy this is for student politics because it means that when it comes to student issues the mandate of issues to pursue comes from the policies of the mother body and not necessarily from the most pressing needs of students.

Even though young people in their thousands did not vote this election the youth have been politically active for a number of years through various grassroots movements. Just take #FeesMustFall, the #MeToo movement and #DataMustFall as a handful of examples. This proves that young people care about issues that affect them on a daily basis and are willing to go to the streets and put their bodies on the line for what they believe in. So just because students are not members of politically aligned youth bodies, just because they are not in parliament, just because they are not voting, does not mean that we are not politically aware and active.

The problem is not young people getting involved with politics. The problem is young people having to identify with any single political organisation. I think we are wary of these traditional forms of politics and some of us prefer a more radical approach to political expression as opposed to a more formal political participation. Leading to the elections many young people complained about having to stand in lines to vote in the twenty first century, many believe that we should be able to place our votes online and that will solve problems of fraud during elections, for instance.

To get the youth more engaged in politics, government needs to understand that we communicate differently, we're on the streets but we're also largely online and we're calling for these traditional methods to bend to our needs and lifestyles. The Independent Electoral Commission should invest in automatic voting systems. Data analysis should be done on social media to check youth interest. These are just a few examples of how the youth can be engaged.

But most importantly, political parties need to listen to the youth when they take to the streets, it's a form of political expression that should not be ignored. These are just some of the ways we can increase youth participation and interest in politics.

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