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Young South Africans aren’t apathetic, just fed up with formal politics

Children marching on the anniversary of the Soweto uprising. EPA/Kim Ludbrook

South Africa’s youth-led movements such as #FeesMustFall and #RhodesMustFall provided contrasting view to perceptions that young people are apathetic and disinterested in the future of their country. But the protests didn’t quite dispel concerns about their lack of political involvement, particularly during elections where there’s been low youth voter turnout.

So we asked young people what they thought about politics. Our research involved focus groups with South Africans aged between 15 and 25 years of age from very different backgrounds. Sampled areas ranged from the rural Eastern Cape, to peri-urban Orange Farm and middle class Kensington, a Johannesburg suburb, amongst others.

Our findings challenge the widely reported perception that young people in South Africa are despondent and don’t care about politics or their role as citizens. What emerged from our research was a picture of young people with strongly defined opinions and knowledge of current affairs. Many said they were involved in some kind of civic activity.

All of the participants expressed a distrust of formal politics. But they also said they have a keen interest in the future of the country and are staking their claim in forging that future, albeit in different and new ways.

What was clear from the research is that young South Africans are engaging with politics very differently to the way in which young people got involved in the 1976 Soweto uprising. They have found new platforms and ways to share information, make their voices heard and ultimately be politically engaged on the back of growing internet based communication, especially social media.

In 1976 young people taught South Africa that they can’t be ignored. They are a powerful force that can shift the course of a country’s future. Today’s youth are no different. They are interested and engaged.

Distrust of formal politics

The people in our focus groups expressed distrust of formal political mechanisms such as voting, demonstrations, and membership of political parties.

Most indicated that they held little faith in the current leadership of the country. They found political leaders to be self-serving and disinterested in them and their communities. While they enjoyed watching parliament in action, this was because it provided entertainment value rather than serious content.

The discussions laid bare why many young people don’t vote. Most expressed alienation from all of South Africa’s political leaders. They said they didn’t know who they could trust or which political party would serve their interests.

As one put it:

Well, there’s ANC, an old promising party who is no longer keeping its promises, then follows the DA which is led and dominated by white people and you’d think when they are in power they may neglect us and care for whites only and also there is Malema who we think is going to corrupt us, so you just think it’s better not to vote.

They also said they didn’t see any point in voting given that there seemed to be little relation between what politicians said they would do versus what they actually did. A common sentiment is reflected in these quotes:

What is the point in voting? Nothing ever changes anyway.

We are not going to vote either because it’s not going to make a difference.

Personally for me I would vote for a party that I have seen making the biggest difference but everyone is fighting in parliament and they are not going out and making the difference that they are supposed to. And when it comes to voting time then all the municipalities jump up and start to do what they were supposed to do. I think that’s the thing. We don’t know who to vote for because no one is making a big difference.

This distrust and alienation often means that young people opt out of formal political processes such as voting and engagement with political parties.

But this should not be read to infer political disinterest and apathy. On the contrary, young people have found other ways to voice their opinions.

Different approaches

Social media is widely used, across the spectrum of youth interviewed, both to voice protest as well as to engage on issues they care about. And many said they have heated face-to-face discussions with their peers about key issues, particularly those affecting their own communities. All these approaches were more appealing, meaningful and accessible than political party membership and voting.

They also held very fervent issues-based views. The focus groups prompted heated debates about xenophobia and the role of foreign nationals in their communities. The participants also felt strongly about common challenges in their communities such as substance abuse, crime and teenage pregnancy.

Our research shows that young people are thinking about key issues in their communities and that they’re getting involved, particularly where issues affect them directly. The difference between this generation and the 1976 generation is that they’re doing so in non-formal ways.

The #feesmustfall campaign is a good example of this. It arose out of an issue that directly affected the lives of many young people. They did not feel that formal democratic processes served them, leading them to engage in a wave of protests driven largely by social media engagements across campuses.

Political parties trying to win the youth vote need to reconnect with where the majority of young people are, more so because young people will continue to form potentially the biggest proportion of the voter base at least until 2050. It’s time the country stopped stereotyping them as apathetic, disinterested and morally bankrupt and started engaging them in ways that are meaningful to them, and connect with the issues they’re interested in.

_This article was co-authored with Lauren Stuart, Thobile Zulu and Senzelwe Mthembu.

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