Global Advocacy for African Affairs

Electoral Apathy among the youth is a serious danger

We need, as a matter of the utmost urgency, to give careful thought to the crisis of youth exclusion and place it at the centre of our national conversation and at the centre of our politics.

There seems to be a national and international consensus that this election is the most important since the end of apartheid. Many have argued that if the ANC doesn’t get a solid mandate under Cyril Ramaphosa’s leadership the liberals in the ANC will be seriously weakened, and an alliance between the corrupt and authoritarian nationalists in the ANC and the EFF could seize control of the country.


The result of this would be, almost all analysts are agreed, a rapid turn to authoritarianism and open looting. There would be massive emigration and capital flight and the country would quickly be turned into another wasteland like Zimbabwe.


Some usually sober voices have argued that Ramaphosa is “the last chance for democracy”. This is clearly the view of powerful forces abroad, as well as many local analysts. This is not an overreaction. Anyone with even a basic understanding of global politics or history will shudder with deep fear at the thought of people like Malema, Magashule and Mabuza running South Africa.

But while all right-thinking people welcome Ramaphosa’s push-back against corruption, the liberal economics that he champions is not sustainable. Mainstream liberal economics offers no viable route to social inclusion for the millions of unemployed.


For many years in the major democracies, the main political parties were more or less indistinguishable from one another, especially on economic questions. There were many countries where no party could be a serious player without massive financial backing, with the result that all serious contenders for electoral office represented the super-rich.


In these kinds of societies elections largely functioned as a public ritual to make legitimate the power of elites more than to offer any realistic prospect for ordinary people to challenge them.


That has all changed in the wake of the financial crisis of 2008, and the emergence of right- and left-wing forms of populism. If the candidates for the American presidency in the next US election are Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, the election will have very real stakes for the future.


The American example is not anomalous. In countries across the world, electorates have turned away from the liberal centre and embraced new forms of right- and left-wing populism. Electoral politics has become polarised, and it has turned into a very high-stakes game. We should not expect South Africa to be an exception.


Populism has not only appeared within the ANC and the EFF. This election is also an important test for new forces in our politics, such as the right-wing populists in the African Transformation Movement (ATM) and the old-school communists in Numsa’s Socialist Revolutionary Workers Party (SRWP) that are contesting liberal hegemony in very different ways. If the new right-wing populism, or old forms of leftism, do better than expected they could shape our politics in important ways.


The ATM has a base in the churches, and the SRWP has a base in the unions. This election will show if either party can translate a well-organised base into votes.


Success by the ATM would push our politics in a more conservative direction with scapegoating substituting for the work of building a just and flourishing economy. The old-school Marxism of the SRWP wouldn’t work in a modern economy. But if the party does well it could push the ANC towards a more social democratic project, which would be very good news indeed.


But while the stakes in electoral politics are rapidly escalating across the globe, there is also a significant disenchantment with electoral politics. In South Africa, this sense of disenchantment with electoral politics isn’t just about the ANC after the disaster of the Zuma years. Many DA supporters also feel that their party has lost its way. The EFF still stirs fervour in some, but many of the party’s early supporters are deeply disillusioned by corruption scandals and reports of authoritarianism in the party.


Many people report that while they will vote, they will do so with no real belief in any of the options before them and that voting will be a purely tactical exercise. But while this group of people may feel that all the major parties are seriously flawed, they have not disengaged from electoral politics as a result.

But there’s also a huge chunk of the population that will definitely not vote because they are not registered to vote.


More than six million young people, more than half of the electorate between the ages of 18 and 30, are not registered to vote. This is an extraordinary figure and shows a profound alienation from electoral politics.


It’s also often reported that communities that have been wracked by service delivery protests are refusing to vote. There was a period in our politics when the organised movements of the urban poor, starting with the now-defunct Landless People’s Movement, and then carried on by Abahlali baseMjondolo, actively called for organised boycotts of elections. But Abahlali baseMjondolo, which has grown into an organisation of significant size, has now called for a collective vote against the ANC, and for “the left”.


The trajectory of the “no vote” position seems to indicate that it occurs when people first break with the ANC and then, after some time, turns into support for alternative parties. For this reason, we shouldn’t see the declarations of a refusal to vote in protesting communities as a form of permanent alienation from electoral politics. It is more likely to be a phase in their break with the ANC.


However, if half the youth, where unemployment is most concentrated, have not bothered to register to vote we are dealing with a very significant structural alienation from electoral politics. The fact that this alienation largely occurs among the people who have gained the least from society is seriously worrying. If the economically excluded are also alienated from electoral politics, their exclusion from constructive participation in society will be profound.


The outcomes of this kind of profound exclusion, and at such a massive scale, can only be profoundly dangerous for democracy.


We need, as a matter of the utmost urgency, to give serious thought to the crisis of youth exclusion, and place it at the centre of our national conversation, and at the centre of our politics


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