Since the election of former US president Barack Obama a decade ago, the spectre of youth has been haunting many a political establishment around the world, including acting as a catalyst in the forcible removals from power of deplorable (mis)leaders in Egypt, Tunisia and Burkina Faso.
So pervasive has this agency of the youth been that it has lunged from obscurity to the mainstream of global politics.
With about six months to go until next year’s general elections, data from Stats SA and the Independent Electoral Commission, the country’s election management body, show that young people currently make up 49% of the electorate – about 17.7 million of the 36 million South Africans eligible to vote.
This is a minefield for any political party that wants to get the youth to register and turn up to vote on election day, a steep curve that no political party has manoeuvred since 1994.
Based on the rhetoric coming from the three largest parties in Parliament, a conclusion can be drawn that there is little to no appreciation of the significance of the “youth vote”.
To its credit, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) has been upfront about its ambitions of securing 9 million votes in the upcoming elections, the majority of which it hopes will come from young people.
A cursory glance at the numbers, however, shows this would be a tall order for the party. Its support in the 2016 local government elections only increased by a meagre 98 908 votes from the 1 130 640 votes it secured in the 2014 national elections.
The EFF’s sterling performance during university Students’ Representative Council (SRC) elections seems to have given the party false hope.
Put into context, support in SRC elections has never translated into support among young people generally.
Several reasons account for this.
Chief among these is that voter turnout at SRC elections has remained stubbornly low, at an average of 25% across most campuses, even with the introduction of electronic voting and the removal of the barrier to participate through automatic registration.
Secondly, the majority of young people are not in institutions of higher learning.
Of the 10.3 million young people between the ages of 15 and 24 who are unemployed, 3.3 million are classified as NEET – not in employment, education or training – reducing even further the size of the pond from which the EFF is fishing.
The DA, on the other hand, seems to be at sea, “mutilating itself in a corner, unprovoked”, as one analyst aptly noted.
Having suffered a loss of 60 450 votes during the 2016 local government elections, down from 4 089 215 votes in 2014, its prospect seems bleak in its current battered shape.
Whether the party possesses the wherewithal to accomplish the target it has set for itself, to drag the ANC’s national electoral support below 50% and win majorities in the Western Cape, Gauteng and in Northern Cape, remains a mystery beyond human cognition.
What is clear, however, is that the DA is similar to the ANC in that it does not recognise the power of the youth vote and has no strategy to attract it.
As the ANC got to its national conference in Nasrec last December, it understood well that next year’s elections will be an uphill battle, even with former president Jacob Zuma out of the picture.
This was a big motivator for deputy president David Mabuza’s faction to discard then party president contender Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma in favour of President Cyril Ramaphosa.
The ANC suffered a loss of 2 834 441 votes in the 2016 local government elections, down from 10 958 634 votes in the 2014 elections.
It would, therefore, be reasonable to expect that at this point in the electoral calendar the party would have elaborated a much clearer electoral programme than the current confused Thuma Mina message.
In addition to the sustained belligerence of the Zuma faction within all its structures, the Zondo commission will remain an albatross around the ANC’s neck going into the elections.
One of the unintended consequences of the commission is that it has become a battleground for ANC members to continue with their unfinished business from Nasrec.
Zuma and his aggrieved legions remain steadfastly committed to transact the agenda of “either us or there will be no ANC” from within.
A slight decline in electoral support next year will engender calls for Ramaphosa to step down at the national general council, as was done after the 2014 and 2016 elections during Zuma’s tenure.
In the absence of an honest self-appraisal by political parties of their own shortcomings, it is safe to conclude that young people will once again be ignored going into the elections.
This poses a particular challenge to young people, given their consistent demands for changing the status quo.
Is it not time to consider creating political platforms that articulate the needs of the youth and their aspirations for the future?
If the answer is in the affirmative, firstly, they would have to come out in numbers to register and show up on election day.
Mtwesi is a political strategist and an entrepreneur
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