The youth vote has the potential to bring change in South Africa

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Lauren Graham, Zulpha Khan and Leila Patel

Centre for Social Development in Africa, University of Johannesburg

South Africa’s May 2024 election is a significant one, with the country marking 30 years since the establishment of a democracy. This election may be even more historic, as the country’s youth could have a significant impact on the outcome of the upcoming election on May 29, 2024.

The IEC indicated that  South Africa’s youth comprise 42% of the voters’ roll. A total of 11.7 million of the 27.79 million South Africans who registered to vote are between 18 and 34 years. The youth vote could, therefore, make a big difference at the polls in these elections if they do show up and cast their ballots.

Research conducted by the Centre for Social Development in Africa titled ‘Factors determining voter choice in South Africa’s 2023 national elections by Leila Patel, Yolanda Sadie and Jaclyn de Klerk  found that the youth vote will matter greatly in this election. A sample of 3511 participants were interviewed in a nationally representative survey to understand why they chose a particular party. 51% of these participants fell into the youth age category of 18-34 year olds. Fourteen options were provided, and respondents had to select five of the top reasons for their party choice. Just over half of the young respondents said that they chose their party ‘because it promises to create jobs”. This was followed by “the party promises to improve people’s lives” (45% of young people) and “because the party will improve service delivery” (44% of young people). These trends closely mirror those of the wider sample. Thirty years after democracy, young people are still faced with deep structural unemployment and poverty – key issues that impact their quality of life – which drive their voter choice.

Youth were found to be 1.5 times more likely to vote for an opposition party than for the incumbent, the African National Congress (ANC), compared to the older age group 35 to 60 years. Youth voter turnout in the election could, therefore, have a major impact on the election. For instance, a high voter turnout of youth will favour opposition parties. This may particularly benefit the EFF, whose major support comes from the youth. Indeed, when respondents in the study were asked which party they would vote for if the election was held tomorrow, just under 26% of young participants would vote for the EFF; and 28% for the ANC. This trend contrasts with participants 35 years and older, 38% of whom would vote for the ANC, 18% for the DA and only 11.8% for the EFF.

Youth turnout in previous elections has been low. According to the IEC, in 2013, only 22% of registered voters were young, and this number dropped, in absolute terms, from 5 million in 2013 to 4.2 million by 2022. The increase in youth voter registration ahead of the upcoming elections is promising, although it remains to be seen whether young people will indeed vote come the 29 May.

Young people’s reasons for voter abstention should not be seen through the lens of political apathy. Rather, as CSDA’s previous research has shown, young people demonstrate other forms of political engagement, such as protest, which they feel offer more direct results than elections. The #feesmustfall protests are an example of how youth protest action resulted in the ruling party acquiescing to student demands. Young people also feel disillusioned with party options and with the electoral process, often pointing out that they felt their vote would not make a difference. These factors are reaffirmed in research released by the IEC earlier this year, which showed that just under 70% of young people interviewed felt that their vote does not make a difference, and just under 80% indicated that all political parties were the same.

Another factor that young people alluded to in earlier qualitative research conducted by the CSDA is that they do not identify with many party leaders, most of whom they view as being too old to understand their lives. In the current research only 27% of young voters said that trust in the party leader was a factor shaping which party they would vote for.

However, the EFF is known for targeting the youth with a specific focus on young people in the higher education sector. Party leader Julius Malema is, himself a lot younger than many other party leaders, and has specifically courted the youth vote, making the promise of jobs for millions of unemployed South Africans. This may explain the appeal that the party has among some young people. This poses a risk for the ANC, especially since there has also been an increase in registered younger voters. Should those young people who are registered to vote actually vote, and if their vote favours opposition parties, as suggested by the study, such as the EFF and others, the ANC may not win a majority of votes.