Not just apathy: Why young South Africans are skipping a big election

Why We Wrote This

Their parents thought they’d left apartheid behind. But how does growing up in a time of hope shape your views and your political participation, if change is incomplete?

Sumaya Hisham/Reuters
An Electoral Commission official checks the identity document of a voter as she arrives to cast her ballot in South Africa’s parliamentary and provincial elections, in Cape Town, South Africa, on May 8. South Africa is no exception to the global tendency for older voters to be more active at the polls than younger ones.

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South Africans are voting in a crucial election, but Jabu Simelane isn’t having it. Nor will a majority of South Africa’s young people. “The rot in this country goes so deep, it’s hard to believe voting will change it,” says Mr. Simelane, an instructor at a youth training center in Johannesburg.

Globally, low turnout among young voters is not uncommon. But for young South Africans, not voting isn’t always just an expression of political apathy. It’s a decision tangled up in their experiences growing up in apartheid’s shadow, and, often, a critique of a political system they believe has failed to live up to its lofty promises. Indeed, while the standard of living here has risen since the end of apartheid, the country is now more unequal than ever before.

Yet protests and social movements are also a vibrant part of political life, and young people have been key players. “When you look deeper than voting, you see that many young people are engaged in the political system in a variety of ways,” says Tasneem Essop, a researcher in Johannesburg. “What they’re saying now is that maybe this electoral system isn’t representing them in the ways they want.”

For Jabu Simelane, things were supposed to be different.

Yes, when he was born in 1994, his mother still mopped the floors and scrubbed the toilets of white people. Yes, his father still laid the bricks to build their houses.

But Jabu, their youngest son, was going to grow up in a different world from what they had. A world where Nelson Mandela was the president instead of being a prisoner. A world where the people in power looked like them, and spoke for them.

Apartheid was over, and as the couple rocked Jabu to sleep in their tiny Johannesburg cottage, a new South Africa was rushing in to take its place.

Suddenly the son could go to the same posh suburban public schools as the family his mother worked for, because they lived in an old servants’ quarters behind her employer’s house.

That meant that unlike his parents, Jabu would get a white education. He would learn the rules of rugby and how to shave the Zulu edges off his English accent. He would live up to the name given to his generation of South Africans: the born frees.

But 25 years later, Mr. Simelane, like many young South Africans, is profoundly disenchanted with that title, and the country he’s grown up alongside.

And so, as South Africa voted Wednesday in a crucial national and provincial election, he wasn’t a part of it. Nor were a majority of the country’s young people. More than half of eligible voters ages 18 to 29 in South Africa, or about 6 million people, aren’t registered. And among those who are, another third said they were unlikely to vote at all.

“The rot in this country goes so deep, it’s hard to believe voting will change it,” says Mr. Simelane, who works as an instructor at a youth training center in downtown Johannesburg.

Post-apartheid expectations

Globally, low turnout among young voters is not, in and of itself, uncommon. Less than half of eligible Americans under 30, for instance, voted in the 2016 presidential contest.

But for young South Africans, not voting isn’t always just an expression of political apathy. For many, it’s far more complicated than that. It’s a decision tangled up in their experiences growing up in apartheid’s shadow, and, often, a critique of a political system they believe has failed to live up to its lofty promises to their generation.

“When you look around this country, it often feels like nothing has changed for young black people [since the end of apartheid] except having the right to vote,” says Pearl Pillay, director of the think tank Youth Lab, who has been outspoken about her own choice not to cast a ballot. “What we’re saying now is, that’s not enough.”

Indeed, while the standard of living in South Africa has risen since the end of apartheid, the country is now more unequal than ever before. On average, a white South African today has five times the income of a black South African. Meanwhile, more than half of young South Africans, most of them black, are unemployed – by some counts the highest rate in the world.

Ben Curtis/AP
South Africans line up to cast votes in the mining settlement of Bekkersdal, west of Johannesburg, on May 8. National and provincial elections pit President Cyril Ramaphosa's perennial winning African National Congress party against its top opposition – the Democratic Alliance and the Economic Freedom Fighters, 25 years after the end of apartheid.

Among young people here who are registered but didn’t plan to vote, nearly two-thirds are unemployed, and the same proportion thinks the economy here is unlikely to improve in the next year, according to a survey conducted by the South African Citizens Survey earlier this year.

“You vote for someone and then at the end of the day, nothing changes,” says Monde Gama, a 28-year-old who sells pirated DVDs in downtown Johannesburg. “After they get the job, they forget about working for the people and just go work for themselves.”

Since Mr. Gama was 3 years old, exactly one political party, Mr. Mandela’s African National Congress, has won national elections in South Africa. And although its grip on the electorate seems to be loosening – in 2016 local elections it lost control of several major cities, including Johannesburg – the ANC is almost universally expected to win Wednesday’s contest handily. That will mean a new five-year term for President Cyril Ramaphosa, who has promised to clean up a party tainted in recent years by major corruption scandals under his predecessor, Jacob Zuma.

But despite the ANC’s woes – and they are many – its challengers still struggle to lure voters away from the one-time liberation movement. The next largest party, the Democratic Alliance, is often branded as the “white” party – a nod to the race of its founders and core membership – and is seen by many as out of touch with the lives of the black majority. Its share of the vote is expected to shrink in Wednesday’s polls.

The ANC’s fastest-growing challenge, instead, comes from a breakaway party formed by a disgruntled leader of its own youth league, Julius Malema, in 2013. Mr. Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), who wear the outfits of manual laborers to Parliament and demand that the country’s major industries be nationalized to redistribute money to the poor, should considerably outdo their 2014 performance Wednesday, rising from 6% to an estimated 10% of the total vote.

For young people, the EFF has been blunt in its assessment of South Africa’s woes, from inequality to racism to corruption, and more than any other party, it has also made a point of reaching out to voters like them. Several candidates on its party list, for instance, are former activists in the massive student movement that rocked South African universities in recent years.

But the EFF’s aggressive tactics, coupled with corruption scandals among its own leaders, have also slowed its rise.

“I love the EFF. They are young and radical and pro-black,” says Boipelo Bogatsu, a student and friend of Mr. Simelane’s, who also did not vote in the election. “But it is hard to trust they are going to do what they say they will do.”

“Right politics, wrong delivery,” adds Ms. Pillay of Youth Lab.

Not voting, but politically active

In a country where protest is stitched into the national identity, however, voting has always been only one of many ways that people express their political leanings. Protests and social movements are also a vibrant part of political life here, and in recent years, young people have been key players in those demonstrations.

“When you look deeper than voting, you see that many young people are engaged in the political system in a variety of ways,” says Tasneem Essop, a researcher at the Society, Work and Politics Institute (SWOP) at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.

“What they’re saying now is that maybe this electoral system isn’t representing them in the ways they want.”

For Mr. Simelane, deciding not to vote itself was his act of protest. And it was a protest, he says, not just against the country’s ruling elites, but also against the world they allowed to flourish beneath them.

He grew up, he knows, in a world materially better than his parents’. But it was still a world where race counted for too much, where his white classmates always seemed to have less trouble finding jobs, buying houses, getting ahead. Where no matter how much money he made, there would always be countless people in his personal orbit in dire need whom he had to share it with – what South Africans commonly call the “black tax.”

And it was still, above all, the ANC’s world.

“We’ve equated freedom with the ability to vote,” says Mr. Simelane. “But what does it mean when you vote and you still can’t get rid of the people holding you down? We know that as long as our parents are voting, the ANC will still win, so as long as that’s the case, what’s the point in trying?”

Thabang Shongwe contributed reporting.

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