Inconvenient youth? Our democracy must earn its heirs' confidence

The all-important Election Day of 2019 has come and gone. On Wednesday, millions of South Africans cast their ballot for national and provincial governments. We saw snaking queues and inked thumbs of all shapes and sizes.

The setback that the sixth election suffered, however, is no elephant in the room. South Africans have spoken openly and at length about the huge army of at least 10 million people who were eligible to vote and did not register. Data from the Independent Electoral Commission suggests that these people, and the additional 5 million who registered and likely did not vote, are comprised mostly of young South Africans.

Much has been made of youth as a kingmaker in the election. The youngest voters in these elections were born between 1999 and 2001, meaning they have spent much of their self-aware lives seeing Economic Freedom Fighters leader Julius Malema on their TV screens and newspaper pages.

For all his sins, Malema has proven himself a capable and enthusiastic mobiliser for youth participation in politics since establishing the EFF.

In 2015, the youth commanded the national discourse and dominated headlines when they marched to the African National Congress’ Luthuli House, and later the Union Buildings in Pretoria, under the now referential declaration that "Fees Must Fall".

Comparisons to the youth uprisings of 1976 have been made, but for me, the youth of Tiananmen Square, Beijing in 1989, come to mind.

This is because, like the youth of China at the time, they were protesting against a government that promised to act in the best interests of its youth but muzzled them when they looked to have their voices counted.

Much like the students of Tiananmen Square, South Africa’s students made history when they made their grievances known in 2015. So where are they now? Regardless of their reasons for not voting, contempt has been heaped upon their decision to opt out of the democratic process.

Finger wagging and indignation is accompanied by the reminder that people sacrificed their very lives for the right South Africans enjoy today, namely to choose your leader through the ballot box.

One would have thought the absence of young voters in Britain, which played a role in the United Kingdom’s mess of a Brexit imbroglio, would have served as a sufficient cautionary tale to other nations not to allow diametrically opposed constituencies to determine their futures for them.

This column does not seek to justify or condemn the inaction of non-voters. I voted in the Wednesday polls and, frankly, I cannot fault a South African – particularly a young one – who did not bother to do the same.

We live in a time when we don’t even call a disenfranchised community’s action a service delivery protest – let alone acknowledge it – unless and until a tyre burns and property is damaged. We show up to condemn them, but the rest of the time, they are invisible to us.

Secondly, the youth might be a bloc as far as age demographic goes, but ideologically and in terms of what they as South Africans value, young South Africans are as diverse a group as any in the country.

Four years after former president Jacob Zuma told the nation that he would listen to the demands of the students who marched the Union Buildings, and nearly two full years after the Presidency announced it, we still do not have a clear picture of what that fee-free education really means.

Voting is merely the first step in the process of democratic participation and accountability, and young people know this as well as anyone does. What follows should be five years of transparency and accountability. The political elite, very conveniently, tends to forget that.

Young people cannot be cajoled into voting one year and then patronised into going back to their "iPhones and juice bars" the rest of the time.

The political elite would do a better job of convincing the youth to participate in voting if it took them seriously between elections, instead of resorting to guilt-tripping and moralising edicts.

We cannot have a dim view of politics because of the behaviour of political elites, and then act surprised when young people are cynical about voting.

President-elect Cyril Ramaphosa’s Instagram calls with celebrities like AKA and Bonang Matheba show how vital youth participation is to keeping our democracy strong and robust for the next generation, but the youth rightfully expect to get as much as they give, and give they do.

Find everything you need to know about the 2019 National and Provincial Government Elections at our News24 Elections site, including the latest news and detailed, interactive maps for how South Africa has voted over the past 3 elections. Make sure your News24 app is updated to access all our elections coverage in one place. 

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