“I have never voted … I don’t see the use of voting.”
These are the words of one young South African that we spoke to in 2012. This young person was not the only one however, in the group of more than 80 people that we spoke to, who had a negative perception of voting. Many of these ‘born frees’ were disillusioned with the process, regarded it as a waste of their time because they thought that putting their X on the page would have very little effect. They saw the process as simply not being able to change either the way politics played out nationally in South Africa, or more importantly in changing the situations which made their daily lives difficult. Things like unemployment, drugs, crime, teenage pregnancy – these are the issues many young people regarded as important to them, and they felt that their vote would make little, if any, difference to those same problems.
“Ja, personally I’ve lost trust in politicians, and the last time I voted was 2006”
For a long time I thought this made these young people disconnected from society, and disengaged from what was going on around them nationally and locally. The rhetoric which I read about young people distancing themselves from politics and therefore not being ‘active’ citizens was reinforced by the way our focus group participants spoke about politics. Traditional forms of politics such as voting, attending political meetings and signing petitions have for too long been regarded as the standard by which we judge others and their value as citizens. If you don’t vote, are you really an active and engaged citizen? If you aren’t a member of a political party, can you really say you have an interest in politics? But why should young people find resonance in the rhetoric of political speak which too often does not speak directly to them or listen to them enough? We need to recognise instead that there is a clear distinction between being disengaged and disinterested in formal or traditional politics, and being detached from wider democratic and political processes which may be represented by alternative political and civic activities. Wring et al note rather astutely when speaking about young people, that “politics’ as represented by parties and politicians simply does not connect with their everyday lives in any meaningful way” (Wring, Henn & Weinstein 1999: 203).
Too often we base our judgements of citizenship on the traditional, without thinking about what appeals to young people. Based on traditional norms or standards of what an active citizen is most of the young people we spoke to would be immediately judged as passive and disinterested – as bad citizens. Hart argues, that rather than judge people based on these norms and standards, we should use a ‘cultural citizenship’ approach which “seeks to uncover and challenge the cultural and institutional practises that support fixed notions or normative assumptions of ‘ideal’ citizenship, which serve to exclude citizens who may differ from these norms, for example, in terms of identity, culture or beliefs” (2009: 645).
Drawing on survey data gathered from almost 1000 young people (http://www.ru.ac.za/media/rhodesuniversity/digitalpublications/Sanpad%20Report%202013/#/0), we see a picture of a young person who is involved in their community, and who takes an interest in what is going on around them. Although they may not participate in traditional forms of political activity, they have connections with social life and are indeed ‘active’ citizens in their own way. Their lived experiences show us that while they disregard formal politics, they show a strong regard for the people around them and for improving their lives. We need to judge young people based on the practices which take place in their daily lives such as helping a neighbour or being involved in a social group and not disregard them based on our ‘adult’ and traditional measures.
With so much emphasis being placed on 2014 as the year that South Africa’s democracy turns 20, and the year of the next national elections, young people should be proud of their citizenship and should be looked up to as good citizens, whether they vote or not. Unlike many people who regard themselves as good citizens for standing in a queue every four years to vote, these young people live active citizenship because they practice small acts in their daily lives. During the National Schools Festival in 2012, the Mellon Media and Citizenship project conducted World Café sessions with young people who attended and we asked them their thoughts on being citizens in South Africa. Below are some of the messages that the young people wrote to each other. It is clear that these are not the disengaged and disconnected youth that many citizenship scholars write about. Over and above the optimism about South Africa’s future (perhaps as a result of naivety), there was an overwhelming sense of action and taking charge of their situations, being involve in their communities, and of getting things done – these were active, engaged and ‘good’ citizens.