Young voters in South Africa aren’t as loyal to the ruling African National Congress as their elders. This could reshape the young democracy.
By Isabella DeMarco
In this episode of The Kids Are Alright, Leela Rosaz Shariyf speaks with young South Africans about their country’s general election earlier this year.
Shariyf, 15 years old and a student at Miss Porter’s School in the U.S. state of Connecticut, was interested in learning about how other young people in different parts of the world engage with elections.
In South Africa, the general election determines which political party will have the majority in Parliament. The majority is key to deciding who will serve as president and thus become both the head of state and the head of government.
“We vote for a party, not a president. And we don’t have different candidates who hold different public views,” says Rorisang Moseli, a graduate of the University of Capetown, where he held the powerful position of Student Council President.
In this episode, Moseli explains why party involvement is crucial to shaping politics in South Africa.
Listeners learn about the leading political party in South Africa, the African National Congress, as well as the Economic Freedom Fighters and Democratic Alliance. Both parties received a higher percentage in the May election then seen before, taking away seats from the ANC.
Leela also heard from Thabang Matona, a student at the African Leadership Academy, about his experience voting in the general election.
“It felt like a momentous moment in my life,” recalls Thabang, who voted for the first time in May. However, voter turnout was uncharacteristically low for the fledgling democracy, largely due to young people not showing up at the polls.
“I don’t know who to vote for because it’s not connected to my values. It’s not connected to the problems they (young people) stand for,” says Amber Domalik, a young South African woman who recently moved back to Johannesburg after living in the United States.
After speaking with Rori, Thabang and Amber, Leela called Dawie Scholtz, a management consultant in South Africa to understand what the election results mean for the ruling party, the ANC, and the nation.
Gareth: “Welcome to The Kids Are Alright, the podcast that explores big, global issues from a young and fresh perspective. I’m Gareth Lewis.
Amber: And I’m Amber Miller. The Kids Are Alright was produced by a team of students interested in learning more about some of the biggest issues facing the global community.
In recent years, democratic nations around the world have experienced unprecedented political volatility. In this episode on democracy in South Africa, we’ll discuss what we learned from the election in May and how voter trends are changing from the young democracy and the liberation party, the African National Congress.
Our reporter for this episode is Leela Rosaz Shariyf. Here she is with a group of young South Africans, discussing how young people identify differently with politics and the African National Congress, the ANC, than other generations.
Leela: I’m Leela. I’m a student at Miss Porter’s School in the U.S. state of Connecticut. I’m 15 years old and just shy of the voting age in the United States. I’ve thought a lot about how other young people might prepare to vote and inform themselves properly. I’m going to speak to South African students Amber, Rori and Thabang to hear more about how they experienced the past election in May and what they as the new generation would like to see change.
Tell me more about the day you went to cast your vote. What was the atmosphere like?
Thabang: Being South African and coming from a household where I always got preachings about the ideas of democracy and what it means for us, I think it felt like a momentous moment in my life to say, “Oh my God. I’m actually getting to vote!” This whole spirit of camaraderie around us South Africans on campus saying, “Let’s go vote! Let’s go vote!”
It was such a big moment among the staff and among students — the fact that we’re exercising our right as South Africans and as democratic, full entities.
Leela: That sounds like a memorable day! I still have a few years before I can vote.
Thabang: You’re missing the 2020 elections!
Leela: Just barely. I’m turning 17 that year, and you need to be turning 18 in that calendar year in order to vote. I only have one or two friends who will be able to. But I’m really excited to encourage those friends I have who can vote!
Amber, what about your experience?
Amber: So, there was a lot of, “Why bother voting? We’re dealing with the masses.” So any other parties, obviously the next leader up is the DA (Democratic Alliance), but there’s a lot of other ones like the EFF (Economic Freedom Fighters), the Independent parties, and no one stood a chance. So a lot of the feeling was, “Why bother?” But this year was a bit different because of all the animosity with Zuma, and there was a lot of scandal around him and his crimes. But a lot of people who were finally ANC supporters started to find pretty much any other party they could back. And those supporters split between DA and EFF.
Leela: Rori, you’re finishing up a degree in Politics, Philosophy and Economics at the University of Cape Town where you served as the President of the Student Council. How did the elections play out on your campus? And does the student government typically get involved in national elections?
Rori: South African elections don’t occupy the imagination of citizens as much as the American election. I say that because I am obsessed by American politics, and I follow American politics very deeply. Whereas in South Africa, we have a parliamentary system. And kind of like in Britain or in Canada, an election can be called three months in advance and it will take place. South Africa, it’s a little bit more disciplined than our global, northern parliamentary system partners who call elections when it’s politically convenient. We tend to follow the cycle.
That outline is really important because my activism proceeded the elections. So in terms of the explicit question, I wasn’t really involved in mobilization or political work in preparation for the election, and there’s a very specific reason.
I want to bring it up now. You know I mentioned I was the — in America they call it the Student Body President — and in South Africa, we call it the Student Representative Council President. The SRC President occupies a far bigger political role in our university system than your Student Body President does. In fact the Student Union, as you call it. I suppose what we call the Student Representative Council in South Africa is enshrined in the Higher Education Act. So, in order for a university to exist, a university must have an SRC that’s duly elected and is represented on particular structures. And so in terms of just legislation and power, in terms of decision-making, it’s quite important. It’s quite an important interest group.
I was the president of the SRC at the University of Cape Town from October 2015 until the end of May 2017, which basically coincided with probably the biggest youth mobilization and activism since 1994, since democratization, and that was around free higher education.
I was deeply involved in that. So, in terms of my contribution to the African National Congress’ policy point of view and the policies that they adopted, is rooted in a whole other activism and work that we did, leading up to kind of like the policy conferences and the National Elected Congress because once that ends — like there’s not much room, in South Africa, we don’t have competitive presidential elections — we vote for a party not a president, for instance. And we don’t have different candidates who hold different public views. It’s very much an internal party process.
If young people are looking to have an impact, they get involved in student politics, which doesn’t have a strong locus in terms of overarching national ANC structure at the moment.
Leela: Amber, unfortunately some administrative hurdles prevented you from voting, but what sorts of issues are you most concerned about?
Amber: The two biggest issues, I feel, are we have a big problem with our electricity supply.
We are very reliant on a company called Eskom, kind of like the monopoly in that they are the sole provider other then a few kinds of renewal energy and solar powered companies. The whole country gets their power from their single company. So when they go down or when a power plant goes down, they do something called load-shedding here, where they literally at different times of the day block off entire parts of the city’s power, and during winter it gets very bad, as you can imagine, with heaters and things like that taking up a lot of the power. So, people were getting angry that in today’s day and age we’re still without power. You kind of sit and you go, “What are my privileges? What are my rights?”
Another big issue is the crime. So I personally love South Africa, but I’ve also had a gun to my head. My family has been tied up in my own home. And this is not the typical story of, you know, being at the wrong place at the wrong time. This is having dinner in your house. So there’s a lot of crime — that has gotten better actually in the past year since I’ve got back — but if you compare it to Europe or America when at 2 in the morning you can go to your local garage, you could not do that in the daylight.
Leela: From the stories you’ve told me of the African Leadership Academy and at the University of Cape Town, there seems to be quite a lot of student involvement? I ask because in the U.S. there is this conversation every election year about Millennials, or just young people, not voting. And we saw in South Africa after the election, a very low voter turnout — the lowest in 20 years actually. But what’s your take on this?
Thabang: I don’t think that young people saying, “I’m not voting” is something unique to the U.S.
It’s something that we are experiencing in South Africa as well. Young people decide to say, “We’re not voting. It doesn’t have any real impact in my life.” And I think when democracy is based on the will of the majority and the majority stops believing in this system that we are using to decide who leads our country, then we as young people are, in a way, we are not participating in creating this feeling of democracy that is important to keep a country running.
You find that the only people that are voting, old people whose political views are based on which political party fought for the freedom that they have. Whereas the views of young people are that they can potentially take out a party that’s not working for the country because they don’t share the same biases. They don’t get their news from the same outlets that give the old people that keep making the same vote every single year regardless of if their political party is doing the job that they’re supposed to do or not.
And when the young people — the only people with the power in this country to decide whether to keep a political party based on the manifestation of their politics, based on what the party has shown to the people — when those people decide to not vote because they don’t believe in the system that has been constantly failing because of the votes that are being made by the older people.
Rori: South Africa is a majority youth population, but it’s the majority, a vast majority. Not even, but like 90% of people in the legislature and government are old. Are above 50.
And there’s a whole history with that, because that’s the history of being a liberation movement that turns into political party. So basically, the EFF was then formed by the people who were ejected from the ANC, and that created quite a significant political vacuum in the ANC in terms of like young people, young thought. The ANC Youth League used to play a very important role in ideological kind of imagination and agitation. And we lost that, and all that power and momentum got placed in another party, and that’s the EFF.
So a trend that I have certainly noticed is that a lot of young people are voting for the EFF. And they’re not just voting for the EFF because they’re young. They’re voting for the EFF because the EFF is speaking to their problems. I mean South Africa faces huge youth unemployment, huge levels of inequality, and all of those things are based on race and apartheid and colonialism. And the EFF speaks the language of radical left, kind of socialist politics.
The ANC is seen as kind of — the ANC is kind of like the Democratic Party in America. A broad church that has like both extremely left people and kind of like centrist people. And the frustration with that kind of organizational structure is that you know, you always have to have concessions, concessionary policies that sometimes don’t go far enough. And the impact in the last 20 years has been such that the first kind of post-apartheid generation, people who are now I suppose what they call Gen-Xers, people who are in their early 40s, late 50s, were excited. And a lot of them said they thought they should have done more when they were in student activism. And we basically had to pick up the mantle to realize a lot of equity issues.
In trying to just kind of wrap up, the reason why young people are disaffected — it actually, it’s not just like young people are lazy or young people don’t care. That not caring, particularly in the South African context, is so deeply rooted in societal ills, in political breakdowns, in the governing party not investing in young people as actual legitimate contributors to the conversation.
In the #FeesMustFall and Rhodes Must Fall movements, which I was involved in leading, that they had first repressed and even though we were members of the party, we were jailed, you know all that kind of stuff. So I, you know, I wish I could give you an optimistic answer and say that as young people get older they’ll get more politically involved, but I am hugely worried about the trend that we’re seeing.
Amber: In America, it’s very split down the middle. You’re a Democrat or you’re a Republican. It’s very easy to choose one because it’s connected to your values. It’s what you value, what are your principles.
Whereas in South Africa, unfortunately it’s a bit of apartheid. It was a bit of a race divide instead of a principle divide. And that has changed in recent years, but there was the black party and the white party. That has changed recently because the DA, the “white party,” finally put a black man in as the face. And a lot of the animosity from what Zuma had been doing — all of the scandals he was in — basically a lot of people who supported the ANC now split between the EFF and the DA.
So who do I vote for? And even me myself as a voter, I don’t know who to vote for because it’s not connected to my values. It’s not connected to the problems they stand for, or maybe they are and the education is not as in your face as in the States. I know that in the States, this party stood for pro-choice and same sex rights, or whatever I believed in. So that was a big difference in, “How do you feel involved in your community?” And, “How do you feel like your party is actually going to create a country that you want to live in?”
Leela: Speaking to Amber, Rori and Thabang was really insightful, and reminded me of a lot of the conversations I have with my friends in the States as we start entering the political realm of society. Following my chat with them, I called Dawie Scholtz, a political analyst and consultant based in Johannesburg.
Dawie: Hey Leela, hey to the listeners. As she said, I’m Dawie Scholtz. I am a South African living in Johannesburg, South Africa. I’m a management consultant most of the time, so working with large companies here and across Africa. But also very interested in politics, so closely following South African and other elections across the continent.
Leela: Fantastic. So you did a lot of coverage about the South African election earlier this year. What stood out to you?
Dawie: I think it was a really interesting election for a number of reasons. It was probably the election in South Africa where the most change has taken place since 1994.
So, we actually had very stable electoral outcomes for a long time because, I guess, such a large portion of the population is loyal to particular parties. And I think this is the first election where, you know, those loyalties started changing a little bit and people voted for new and different parties.
I’d say it stood out to me as being probably one of the more competitive elections or probably the most competitive election that South Africa has had since its democratic era, which started in 1994.
Leela: That’s fascinating. Would you like to elaborate on why the election may have been more competitive this year? And what about the changing demographics affecting the election results?
Dawie: I guess there’s this long experience in post-colonial African democracies where the party of liberation generally tends to do well for about 20 or 25 years. And if you consider the moment of South Africa’s liberation in 1994, then we have sort have reached that 25-year mark now in 2019.
And so I think there’s a large group of former loyal ANC voters in South Africa who are starting to think about whether the progress that’s been made since 1994 is significant enough, whether the economy is growing enough, whether economic inclusion is good enough for the previously disadvantaged black majority in South Africa. And I think there’s a group of voters that are starting to think about political alternatives, and in particular starting to think about radical alternatives in South Africa.
We have a new party called the Economic Freedom Fighters, which is kind of, I’d say, further to the left than the ANC, so making very radical proposals about redistributing wealth in the economy, about taxation in the economy and about redistributing land in the economy, particularly to Black South Africans.
I think there’s a significant group of people who those policies appeal to, so that party did quite well and took some vote off of the ANC, who got about 62% of the vote in the previous national election in 2014, going down to about 57.5%, which was the lowest they have ever gotten in a national election, and most of it’s going to the EFF, which is this new party that got about 10%, 8% of the votes to be precise. Most of it coming from, poorer, black South Africans in South Africa’s large urban areas.
Leela: Where do you think youth voters come into this? Both the ones that have just started to vote and the ones that will be able to in a couple of years?
Dawie: Yeah. I think the youth vote is really critical to South Africa’s future. I think for the listeners that maybe don’t know South Africa that well, South Africa has what you call a very bottom-heavy population pyramid. You know most countries have an average age of something like 25 or 26 or 27 because there’s lots of old people and quite a lot of middle aged people and then obviously quite a lot of young people, and it averages out at to something like 25. In South Africa, the average age is something like 15 or 16, so there’s a lot of young people in South Africa, and the bottom of the pyramid, age-wise, is very big.
Lots of young people who are going to be entering the workplace, going to be entering the economy and also going to be entering the electorate obviously. That’s a really critical part for the future, and I think there are two very interesting things to observe about young people in South Africa and their engagement with politics. The one thing which is very interesting, and maybe a little bit worrying, is that young South Africans seem way more disengaged than older South Africans when it comes to politics and voting.
In this election, we actually had really low turnout, and driven particularly by low youth turnout and also very low registration rates among young people. So to give you some stats on this, you know, in South African elections, we’ve never had turnout for a national election under 72% — that was the last election in 2014, and it was the lowest ever. You know, if you compare that with a country like the United States, where turnout is something like 50% or 55%, and turnout is very high, that’s actually an incredibly high turnout by normal democratic standards.
But in this election, turnout was as low as 65%, so it was an all-time low for South Africa, driven mostly by young people staying home and not voting. And there’s many potential reasons for that. Some people say it has to do with people feeling disenfranchised from the political party that particularly represents them. The other observation is also just that as South Africa becomes a more mature democracy, the right to vote becomes a little bit more taken for granted perhaps. People don’t feel as animated to vote as they may have felt immediately after 1994 when that right became available for everyone for the first time.
There’s interesting dynamics there about lower youth turnout in South Africa. That’s the one thing. And I think the other thing that’s very important to mention about the youth voters is that young people in South Africa seem to be much less loyal, and particularly young black South Africans, to be much less loyal to the ANC than their parents and grandparents. They seem to be much more open to voting for the Economic Freedom Fighters and even the Democratic Alliance so political alternatives to the ANC.
And I think that really opens up the opportunity for political change in South Africa in the future, and I think it’s a major point of contestation now amongst different political parties in South Africa to try to cater to youth vote, to try to communicate to young voters in a way that appeals to them but also that appeals to their needs in society. There’s a lot of talk, for example, about free education, about supporting people to get into the workforce, a special kind of workforce training for young people who drop out of high school, and so on and so forth.
The youth vote will become, I think, very important for South Africa and certainly one of the swing categories of voters in South Africa.
Leela: The African National Congress still has the majority, but does it have the loyalty of the new generation? From what I’ve learned today, it appears they have much to prove and deliver before my peers in South Africa cast their votes the next time.
We hope you enjoyed listening to this series of reports from young people around the world. The Kids Are Alright will be back soon with Episode 3.
Think you’d like to join our team? Have an idea for a story? Get in touch with us at firstname.lastname@example.org! This time next year you might even hear YOUR voice here!
In the meantime, the kids are alright.
For other episodes of The Kids Are Alright, click here.