The future of youth participation in elections

Despite the perception of a more youthful vote in 2009, EBRAHIM FAKIR and ZANDILE BHENGU find declining participation among young people in the institutions of South Africa’s political and social life.

South Africa’s 2009 elections were widely lauded as attracting unprecedented levels of youth participation, from researchers, analysts and even the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) itself. However, the facts behind this upward trend point to conclusions that defy what appears to have become conventional wisdom.

Understanding claims of a purported dramatic increase in interest and participation first requires consideration of the demographic that constitutes the ‘youth’. In 2000, the United Nations defined youth as ‘anyone ranging in age from 15 to 24 years’. The South African IEC categorised youth as people between the ages of 18 to 35 prior to the 2004 elections. This is consistent with both the National Youth Act of 1996 and the current National Youth Policy of 2008–2013, which define youth as persons aged betwen 14 and 35, but takes into account the age of majority required to vote. However, in the lead-up to the 2009 polls, the IEC amended this category to 15 to 29 years.

This non-standardisation of demographic categorisations introduces significant difficulties in assessing youth political participation. It requires particular care in drawing conclusions about youth voter registration trends over time; yet, this data is critical if we are to come to appropriate conclusions about the participation of young people in elections, and more broadly, society and social change (or lack thereof) over time. For the purposes of this article, we define youth as persons aged 15 to 34.

The IEC recorded a total of 18.1 million South Africans registered ahead of the 1999 general elections, 20.6 million people registered to vote in 2004, and over 23 million for the elections in 2009. For the 1999 elections, 77% of persons in their twenties were registered to vote, compared to 95% of those over 40.

Statistics South Africa records an estimated population of 49.3 million in 2009 as per medium variant, of which 15.5 million (31%) were youth aged 15 to 34. The IEC estimates that ‘about 27% of the total registered voters for 2009’ were youth. (1)

Registration statistics on those aged 18 to 29 show an overall increase in youth numbers: according to the IEC, 6.3 million youth registered in 2009, compared to approximately 5.8 million in 2004 and 1999.

Reporting on voter turnout after the 2004 elections, the Commission announced that ‘9.2 million of registered voters, representing 44.47% of all registered voters inclusive of those aged up to 35, were youth voters’. However, this statistic cannot be effectively compared to the 1999 and 2009 elections as no data for the age group of 18 to 35 exists. Rather, 43% of youth actually cast their vote in the 1999 election.

Increased voter registration in 2009 may not be indicative of greater political interest: rather, a 15% increase in voter population between 2004 and 2009 means an average increase of 3% per year, which is not much more than the average population growth rate of 2.4%. Population growth may therefore better explain the higher number of registered voters, especially amongst those who have come of age to become eligible voters.

Data also point to declining rates of participation in unions and in social and associational clubs and societies, which in the past have served as primary sites for social, economic and political socialisation. A survey conducted by the National Labour and Economic Development Institute (NALEDI) found that 40% of young people in formal  employment do not belong to trade unions. A further 40% of young people aged between 18 and 24 are not employed, nor are they studying or participating in workplace training. They therefore do not belong to student or labour unions, and as a result of limited post-matric educational and job opportunities, are less likely to belong to other clubs and societies.

A worrisome picture emerges even from tertiary institutions, where participation in student council elections and social groups is in fact very low. The 2009 Student Representative Council (SRC) elections at the University of the  Witwatersrand and the Durban University of Technology generated an aver-age turnout of 23% and 25% respectively. (2) Self-exclusion and alienation from formal societal organisations may in part serve to explain high youth participation in the increasingly violent community protests mushrooming across the country.

More profoundly, it indicates the inability of agents of social and political socialisation to interpolate young people’s participation in economic and societal affairs generally, and in formal political processes such as elections in particular.

These statistics may be early indicators of a level of socioeconomic differentiation amongst young South Africans. Those privileged by their access to education and resultant social mobility may opt out of political and electoral processes perceived to be inefficient, passé and ineffective in responding to their interests and claims. The less privileged (as well as those reliant on connections to the political elite) may still be keenly interested in political processes that produce goods and services as a direct outcome.

Roberts and Letsoalo (2009) also find that there are ‘significant racial differences in attitudes within the younger generation, with black youth expressing more positive attitudes or “democratic enthusiasm”’.

South Africa’s youth have always been, and continue to be, politically active. However, interest in elections as an instrument of political contestation is moderate. Instead, other forms of political expression – through cultural channels such as theatre and music, as well as direct action and protest – remain salient features, and indeed appear to have gained traction in the political firmament of young people.

For those who fear the peril of low election turnout, there is some good news. Survey data also confirm that age is a critical factor in voter registration: those who are unwilling to participate in political contestation through elections, such as youth who prefer other modes of political expression and other actions, are more likely to register and vote with age.

Ebrahim Fakir is manager and Zandile Bhengu an intern at the Governance Institutions and Processes Department at the Electoral Institute for the Sustainability of Democracy in Africa (EISA).

(1) IEC National Office, 8 December 2009.
(2) Personal email correspondence with SRC representatives, August 2010.

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