Voting Void

Voting Void – will young people vote in the 2014 National Elections?

South Africa’s Born Free’s (the people born after 1994 in South Africa) will be voting in their first national elections in 2014 – or will they? These young citizens have been characterized as many things – hopeful, optimistic about their future, and better racially integrated than previous generations. However, politically active is not a feature of this group of South Africans. The research conducted by the School of Journalism and Media Studies at Rhodes University (with partners from around the country) shows that young people in South Africa are disaffected, disengaged and disempowered. Their lack of engagement in the political arena should be of significant worry to all South Africans in terms of the state of our country’s democracy. Even more so now, with the national elections (to be held between April and July 2014) looming, their political identity should be of particular concern over the next few months. The question that needs to be asked by political stakeholders including the ANC, opposition parties, the media and civil society is how to better engage young people in political activity, including the ritual practices of political democracies, the habitus, such as voting (one of the foundations of democratic political participation), but also the alternative acts of political engagement.

The Mail & Guardian recently revealed in a report (Polling data spooks ANC) that the ruling party had commissioned a survey which reveals that, amongst other things, young South Africans are easily swayed in their party of choice. Like many marginalised citizens, “unemployed young people pose a threat to party’s support base”. The truth is that unemployed people or ‘the underclass’ “participate less than other groups in parliamentarian politics, for reasons having to do with social exclusion, cultural capital, and political disempowerment – sensing, perhaps (often rightly so), that election outcomes would have little impact on their life circumstances” (Dahlgren). While some ‘acts of citizenship’, which Isin and Nielsen argue “disrupt habitus, create new possibilities, claim rights and impose obligations in emotionally charged tones” are movements away from ritual or processes of political participation such as voting, the simple ‘act’ of voting is still key to democratic politics. We often regard citizenship very much about the citizen and their status as citizens, rather than the acts that make us citizens, regardless of our rights. Isin & Nielsen argue that “to investigate citizenship in a way that is irreducible to either status or practice, while still valuing this distinction, requires a focus on those acts when, regardless of status and substance, subjects constitute themselves as citizens or, better still, as those to whom the right to have rights is due.”


Part of being a citizen in a democracy is having the ability and possibility to influence government structures and actions, and one way to do that is through voting (Dalton). While I agree that there are new ways to engage in political activities beyond traditional processes such as voting, I also think that it is one of the cornerstones of political engagement – especially for young people. Very often young people are unsure about their political identity and being able to vote for the first time in national elections should be a process of establishing that identity and learning to be active citizens. However, if citizens and young citizens feel as though they will have little impact on governance and that voting is a negative experience then why should they? The number of eligible voters who are actually taking the time and effort to go to polling stations is dropping in South Africa. The reason for this, if research on youth (and especially marginalized youth) is evidence to go by (O’Toole et al; Lefko-Everett), is that young people feel apathetic, distrustful and skeptical of political engagement and their power as political actors.


This is exactly what the research done by the Mellon Media & Citizenship project found when it conducted focus groups with young South Africans across the Eastern Cape and Gauteng. Political participation, including voting, was regarded as a futile activity because it made very little difference to the everyday lives of those young people. Seventy-five young people between 18 and 36 participated in the focus groups. The focus groups specifically targeted young people in contradictory environments and situations using variables such as urban and rural, employed and unemployed, those with higher education and those without. Whilst the focus groups were specifically aimed at examining their attitudes  towards the media and citizenship, a key question asked was – Do you think that your vote will improve the quality of government services? A prevalent attitude which emerged from the participants of almost all the focus groups was that voting would make no difference to the delivery of government services in their communities. Some of the responses from participants included:
P1 – “Not at all, bra. It won’t change it at all.
P2 – “It’s all the same, if you vote or not because nothing improves.  Your vote does nothing.
P3 – “We have been voting for a long time and there is nothing going on. It is like as it was before.
P4 – “It certainly improves the party that is in power or that person who is in power at the time, otherwise not service delivery.
What is striking is that over and above the generally negative attitudes in all the focus groups towards political engagement, from the focus groups made up of unemployed participants there was not a single positive comment with regards to the influence of their voting on government services.


In its article, the Mail & Guardian quoted the ANC as stating that they wanted to attract “potential young voters”, particularly the Born Frees, who make up a significant percentage of the voting citizenry. The ANC’s head of organising and campaign, Nomvula Mokonyane was quoted as saying “We are also targeting 20% of new voters, who were born after the release of president Nelson Mandela, the so-called Born Frees”. And rightly so. As the research conducted by the Mellon project, as well as other recent research conducted by the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation, and Mattes (part of the Afrobarometer working papers) shows, a concerted effort to target and engage young people will be required to get them voting. This was highlighted by the ANC as a key concern for the party, but should be a key concern for all political stakeholders in South Africa.
Many of the young people we spoke to were distrustful of not only national political processes, which many of us feel are out of our reach, but of community political activities such as communities meetings and local visits by politicians. Despite having attended meetings with politicians, the participants’ attitudes towards the meetings were that they were negative experiences. Some respondents noted that the meetings were a forum for politicians to make promises which were never fulfilled. One participant noted: P5 – “They don’t always keep their promises. Those are some of the things that we have experienced in the meetings.” A large portion of respondents who shared a negative experience of a political meeting felt that they were not being listened to and that the meetings were inaccessible (in terms of language and participation) to them. Some of the responses from participants included:
P6 – “You find that they will come meet with the community but they will not find what people have to say important. They are not paying attention. They only come because they have to.
P7 – “When they call a meeting for the community they sit there, you see. Then they talk and talk, the agenda is set about housing or whatever. It is never one on one and you talk to them.
P8 – “I know that the language is the same, like they talking the politic language and it’s very, it’s not me…
P9 – “I once went to a meeting. I don’t know if it’s a council or what meeting, but hey, you come out blank there. They want to use the big words, and political terms.


While this negative attitude was found in all the focus groups, there were a small number of participants (all from groups that were either categorised as employed or with tertiary education) that made some positive comments regarding the influence of their vote on government services:
P10 – “I make sure that each and every election I do vote, bra, just because I know it will make a difference. No matter the party that I vote for wins or doesn’t win, but it will make a difference.
P11 – “Ja, and I believe that your vote is useful , because although you cannot approach those people who are up there, by voting you are able to say what you want to say.
However, these were a minority amongst the young people we spoke to and these sentiments do not seem to be shared by most young people. “About 40% of Africans under 35 have little or no confidence in political parties, and the same is true for more than two-thirds of young people of other races” says Ryland Fischer.


The challenge is not only for the ANC to engage better with a significant proportion of the citizenry and new voting population, but for broader political institutions, opposition parties and civil society organisations to get more involved in engaging young people about the power of political participation. This does not mean forcing young South Africans to ‘learn’ about political engagement through education programmes which see’s young people as needing “discipline and training” (Hart). Instead organisations which are youth focused such as youth wings of political parties, civil society organisations, local community groups, churches, and youth NGO’s should be engaging young people in discussions about what it means to participate politically, why it is important for them to participate and what it means for them to be active citizens. These organisations need to first understand what is important to young people, what is relevant to them and then use those as a way to engage with young people about issues that affect them and how they can be agents of change.


If young people feel disempowered, they need to be more involved, not less. If they feel they are not being heard, they need to shout loader, not softer. The answer to the feelings of disempowerment felt by young people is not to become less politically active, but to find ‘acts of citizenship’ which allow them to feel empowered, to feel engaged and to feel as though they do have an influence on their local and national communities. This can be simply talking about the politics of the country with each other, their family, and community leaders. Acts can include (but are certainly not limited to) writing to their local newspaper, forming debating clubs in their schools, organising a flash-mob, establishing a film club, or even just thinking about themselves as political citizens. This also means that political institutions, community organisations and local politicians need to be open to the participation of young people in the political arena in ways beyond voting, but that allow them to be active, and engaged citizens.



Dahlgren, P. 2009. Media and Political Engagement. Citizens, Communication and Democracy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Dalton, R. J. (2008), Citizenship Norms and the Expansion of Political Participation. Political Studies, 56: 76–98. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9248.2007.00718.x

Hart, S. 2009. The ‘problem’ with youth: young people, citizenship and the community. Citizenship Studies, Vol 13 (6): 641-657.

Isin, E.F. & Nielsen, G.M. 2008. Introduction. Acts of citizenship. In: Engin. F. Isin & Greg. M. Nielsen (Eds) Acts of Citizenship. London: Zed Books.  1-12.

Lefko-Everett, K. 2012. Ticking Time bomb or demographic dividend? Youth and reconciliation in South Africa. SA Reconciliation Barometer Survey: 2012 Report. Institute for Justice and Reconciliation.

Mattes, R. 2011. The “Born Frees”: The prospect for generational change in Post-Apartheid South Africa. Working Paper No. 131. Available at

O’Toole, T, Marsh, D & Jones, S. 2003. Political Literacy Cuts Both Ways: The Politics of Non‐participation among Young People. The Political Quarterly, Vol 74 (3), 349-360.


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