Melanie Verwoerd

The youth vote could topple the ANC

2017-06-21 08:36
A student holds a banner aloft during the march to the Union Buildings in Pretoria yesterday.

A student holds a banner aloft during the march to the Union Buildings in Pretoria yesterday. (Theana Breugem)

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On Friday, at an event organised for Youth Day, President Zuma addressed a big crowd in Ventersdorp. Of course, none of his handlers wanted a repeat of the May Day fiasco, where he was booed and eventually had to leave without addressing the crowds.

From the TV visuals it was clear that the organisers were taking no chances and brought in hundreds of children in school uniforms. 
The children looked utterly bored as the president read a prepared speech in his usual halting manner – until a group of students started chanting: “Zuma must go; Zuma must go”. Now you have to pity the man. They “rent a crowd” and STILL he gets booed. He must really feel he can’t win. 

On a more serious note, there was a sad irony in the image of young people being roughly escorted out by bodyguards of the president for protesting against the current political regime on the day that we commemorated the events of June 16. 

Of course all the other major parties held their own events. Julius Malema held court in typical Juju fashion at a big rally in Boipatong. He got a bit side tracked at some point, ranting against the five major banks in South Africa and telling the crowd that everyone should bank with the Venda Building Society. 

Apart from the fact that one would worry about their liquidity after the Nkandla bail-out, I wish Julius would tell us who he and the EFF bank with. I am willing to bet good money that it is with one of the big five banks. 

But let me not also get distracted. 

Mmusi Maimane, who like Malema was born after 1976, also gave an impassioned speech about the responsibilities of the youth. As I watched all the leaders of the biggest parties vying for the attention of young South Africans, I could not help but think about the 2019 elections and the role the youth vote could play. 

Across the world the impact of the votes of the 18 to 29-year age group is increasingly being noticed. In the recent American election, the Bernie Sanders campaign started drawing media attention for its appeal with the youth voters. Analysis after the Brexit referendum showed the huge discrepancy in the feelings of the younger voters compared to the older sections of UK society. 

But the recent British election provides the biggest lessons for the political parties – especially the ANC. After a concerted campaign by youth NGO’s in the UK more than one million young people registered in the two months after the general election was announced. Astonishingly, almost a quarter of a million registered on the deadline day for registration. 

Although the UK's First Past the Post voting system means that the result is almost a foregone conclusion in many constituencies, it was reported in advance of the election that in 40 constituencies the sitting MP could be unseated if the turnout among the 18-24 age group reached the same levels it did in the EU referendum.

And much of that seemed to play out. Almost 58% (compared to 43% in 2015) turned out to vote and with 63% of the youth supporting the Labour Party, the serious decline of support for the Conservative Party became known as “#youthquake”.  

Intrigued as to what could cause a similar “youth quake” in South African elections, I ran through some figures. It made for very interesting reading and should seriously make the ANC sit up – if, of course, they are not too busy sucking up to the Guptas. 

Some 66% of our population of approximately 54 million is under the age of 35 years, which in itself is a staggering statistic. But when one looks at elections numbers it gets interesting.  Only 6.3 million of the 11.8 million eligible voters in the 18 to 24-year old age group were registered for the 2016 elections. Although I could not find reliable figures on how many actually voted, it was estimated by several bodies to be around 30%. 

So that made me wonder. What would happen if South African youth did something similar to those in the UK and turned out en mass? Let’s for the sake of the argument accept the 30% turnout figure from 2016 and assume nothing else changes – no new registrations and no decline in ANC support. What would happen if another 30% of the registered youth turn up to vote in the next election (In case you think that can never happen – 60% of youth turned out to vote during the Brexit referendum). 

It would mean that about 1.9 million extra votes come into play in the 2019 elections. If those all go to either the EFF or DA, then (based on the 2014 election figures) the DA and EFF support combined goes up to about 34.5% (from 28.5%) and the ANC drops to about 56,5% (from 62.15%).

Remember this assumes no drop in the ANC’s support, nor a growth in the number of registered voters. If for example another 10% of the 18 to 29-year old age group registered and also voted for the opposition the ANC support would drop to about 53% and the DA and EFF would grow to about 38%. If the ANC at the same time loses support – especially if the trend of the local government elections continued and they lost eight or more percentage points, the youth vote alone could push ANC support well below 50%.

These are definitely the kind of numbers that politicians take note of, but it is equally important that the youth should start taking note of it too. 

Recent Zupta shenanigans aside, it is true that politicians respond to the demands and needs of the majority of voters. As long as the youth vote remains such a small share of the total the politicians will not pay attention to the demands and needs of young people. 

The equation is simple for political parties: if it will not make much difference in the next election, it is irrelevant. Given that the youth form such a huge percentage of our population this must change. The Soweto uprising of 1976 taught us that young people can forever change the history of a country. That can happen again, if the youth of today sign up and show up for the next election.

- Melanie Verwoerd is a former ANC MP and South African Ambassador to Ireland. 

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Read more on:    anc  |  voter registration  |  youth day  |  election

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