Has the time come for young people to lead South Africa?

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The discourse of political parties in South Africa is difficult to decipher. Voters have lost confidence. Photo: Mara Mbele
The discourse of political parties in South Africa is difficult to decipher. Voters have lost confidence. Photo: Mara Mbele


With election day looming eerily close, so many questions flood our minds as young people. Will the ANC prevail again? What will be done about our high unemployment rate? And a pertinent question not many are asking is: Where do youngsters fit in and should we be led by those who are privy to the needs of a large majority in this particular sociopolitical climate?

The local government elections have highlighted a worrying voter apathy among young people. The Electoral Commission of SA documented disturbing trends among young voters. Of the 26.2 million registered voters for the upcoming election, the 18- to 29-year-old age group accounts for just 17.54%. This shows that youth participation remains at a steady decline.

This could be an issue of political awareness among young South Africans or for a more cynical reason, like a lack of faith in the government, or apathy towards what is an already crumbling economy.

In 2004, young people between the ages of 18 and 35 accounted for 44% of registered voters.

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Youth dissatisfaction could not be more evident. When we consider the #FeesMustFall movement that began in October 2015 – although this movement came to a close at the end of 2016 – many of the issues raised still plague South Africa’s young people.

#FeesMustFall activist and photographer Mara Mbele said: “I can say this without caution: there hasn’t been much tangible change. #FeesMustFall can be considered as a moment or a movement. Where it is delimited to a moment, it is transfixed to temporality, it is an event of revolt. Conversely, as a movement, the struggle for decolonised, free and quality education is a constant call for action. Yes, students’ fees were waived, in-sourcing of staff occurred and the inclusion of African epistemology was included in tertiary education, but this is not enough.”

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The decolonisation of the country is one that the older population understand, but, unfortunately, cannot get a grasp on executing.

This is where young people should take a stand. When we consider simple things such as the social climate and technological advancements, the youth are in better positions of not only understanding but implementing real and tangible change in accordance with the way people view life, ethics and morality in this day and age.

“The concept of decolonisation has moved to national consciousness, allowing the discourse of indigenity and the release from western modernity to be imagined, but this concept and mode of existence hasn’t been fully implemented in power structures,” said Mbele.

Young people of South Africa are disenfranchised from political processes and restricted from voicing decisions that govern the country. Photo: Mara Mbele

“We can go on about apartheid, and the leaders who so graciously paved the way for us to be free, but it still does not answer the burning question: Are those same leaders still fit to rule our nation?”

With an unemployment rate that rose to 34.4% in the second quarter of this year, the difference was harrowing, compared with the data collected from the previous period, showing 32.6%, according to Trading Economics.

Young people of South Africa are disenfranchised from political processes and restricted from voicing their opinions on decisions that govern the country. With a plethora of movements and sociopolitical voices, it becomes easier to understand government’s concern about having young people lead the country. An insurmountable number of voices and political agendas all but blur the real issues, especially when we consider how, in the years of apartheid, the goal was the same, to fight the power and put an end to racial discrimination and crime.

However, a vast number of movements and voices is not always a bad thing; it highlights the fact that young people are asking one another to take accountability for the mistakes their elders made, and failed to recognise.

Whether it be through the LGBTIQ+ and gender-based violence protests or #FeesMustFall movement, these problems existed before, but young people are bringing them to light and tackling them.

As election day looms eerily close, one must wonder where the youth fit in. Photo: Mara Mbele

Mbele explained: “The hegemonic rule of this country is led by the elderly. The youth bring to the fore socio-politico-economic issues that affect us directly. I feel as though age is usually equated to experience and ability to manage a position, which isn’t necessarily true. The youth usher in innovation and fresh perspectives on governance and policies.”

Justin Trudeau was 43 years old when he was elected Canada’s prime minister. This is well below the average age of the South African politician, which is roughly 54 years old.

Trudeau was quick off the mark to address inefficient policies. With climate change at its worst, he introduced carbon tax, which will help reach his 2030 climate goal of reducing carbon emissions. Furthermore, he introduced an initiative to welcome more than 1 million immigrants between 2020 and 2022 to increase economic productivity.

This is in contrast to South Africa where politicians have openly endorsed xenophobic attacks on immigrants. In the heat of local election campaigns, Patriotic Alliance leader Gayton Mckenzie, was seen on Twitter spewing xenophobic rhetoric. He said on Twitter: “Your fear of coming across as xenophobic is speeding up xenophobic attacks, foreigners taking jobs while South Africans are starving is a recipe for xenophobic attacks, fixing the problem is preventing attacks, illegal foreigners should start packing, 28 October is going home day.”

Young people between the ages of 18 and 35 have been given the unique opportunity of interacting in a global society, engaging in discourse around xenophobia. Of course, one cannot say with certainty whether a younger government would alleviate many of the problems we find ourselves in, but we will never know until they have a chance to prove themselves.

In closing, Mbele states: “The discourse of political parties in South Africa is a trying task to decipher. Voters have lost confidence and trust in the process. I believe smaller parties and independent candidates will take the lead in this election. Young voters, unfortunately, are largely despondent and indifferent to politics in this country as our choices in political parties are limited to disappointing options.

The height of the #FeesMustFall movement was the first indication of youth unrest. What will become of the youth when the government doesn’t speak for them? Photo: Mara Mbele

“Perhaps the loss of hope in political parties is owing to our frustration with our current socioeconomic situation. We are demotivated to change yet maintain the status quo. Despite this bleak outlook, I firmly believe young people have the power to galvanise a refreshing alternative political party to steer South Africa to a promising future.”


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