A breakaway group at a youth voter workshop hosted by MVC, Equal Education and the IEC. Photo by: Sheilan Clarke

Despite the electoral process being marred by internet shutdowns, extreme political violence and concerns of vote rigging, over two-thirds of Uganda’s registered voters were younger than 30. While between 52%-55% of voters in the United States were young people. Looking at these trends versus voter turnout during South Africa’s 2019 election, the youth demographic in South Africa has had a lower voter turnout than any other demographic. So, what does youth apathy about voting tell us?

Many factors explain youth apathy, such as: 

  • young people feel there is a lack of accountability by political parties and politicians; 
  • distrust in the electoral and political processes due to on-going corruption in government structures; 
  • perceptions regarding the lack of service delivery and 
  • continued high youth unemployment which leads to further youth dissatisfaction with formal political and economic processes.

Young people continue to be disproportionately burdened by unemployment and poor education than any other demographic. According to Statistics South Africa, 55.2% of 15 to the 34-year-olds are unemployed. Young people are the most concerned about unemployment and education, as these have a direct impact on them and their futures. Young voters stay away from voting polls because they link the high levels of youth unemployment and poor-quality education to the political and electoral system and thus feel that their vote will not change things. 

Corruption and other related issues have contributed to the challenges young people face in particular unemployment. Young South Africans bear the brunt of corruption because public money that was meant to improve the quality of their lives often end up in the pockets of politicians. Corruption and lack of accountability pose serious concerns for the youth. Employment opportunities of many young people in South Africa are hampered by the inability to access basic services because of corruption. According to a study conducted by Corruption Watch, 80% of the youth respondents claimed that corruption undermined their employment prospects.

The challenges affecting youth participation in electoral democracy are complex. However, youth apathy about voting can result in further political alienation among the youth and could lead to further dissent through processes other than electoral democracy. Thus, we should encourage effective youth participation in electoral democracy.

While we cannot fix the political and electoral systems to ensure accountability, important lessons can be learned from youth apathy in that we should embrace social media. Social media can provide opportunities for encouraging youth participation in electoral democracy. Secondly, the Independent Electoral Commission should reduce the barriers to voting like limiting registration solely to voter registration weekends and limiting voting to voting districts and district boundaries. Thirdly, civic education and participation in electoral democracy should be encouraged from an early age. This will likely lead to higher levels of voter registration and election participation among young voters as they reach voting age.

In the age of retweets, we can conclude that political parties and the IEC alike could gain more by simply adapting to the times and opting for a transparent political and electoral environment when trying to campaign for young people’s votes. South Africa (and Africa generally) is a youthful population and although connectivity is still to be improved, we are better off now than 20 years ago. Knowing this information and using this information could be the difference between the majority youth population being disenfranchised and disengaged in our democracy, and contributing to the progress of South Africa and ensuring that they exercise their constitutional right to participate in elections. 

My Vote Counts NPC is a non-profit company founded to improve the accountability, transparency and inclusiveness of elections and politics in the Republic of South Africa. We work to ensure that the political and electoral systems are open, fair and accountable to the public and that they remain relevant in the changing South African socio-political context.