SA’s disillusioned youth: Unemployed, unregistered and not voting – Katzenellenbogen

Young adults in South Africa face high unemployment and political disillusionment, resulting in low voter registration and turnout. As a pivotal election approaches, with the ANC potentially losing majority support, many eligible voters remain disengaged. Only 66% of adults are registered to vote, and turnout has been declining since 1999. Economic and political distrust, especially among the youth, exacerbates the issue, indicating a weak and underrepresented democracy.

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By Jonathan Katzenellenbogen*

To be a young adult in South Africa means you are probably unemployed, have not registered to vote, and if you are on the voters’ roll you will not bother to vote. It could also mean that you are disillusioned and angry.

Next week will be a pivotal election, as the ANC might not obtain 50 percent of the vote. Yet many who are eligible to vote will not do so. There are 41.6 million people who are over the age of 18 and can register to vote. But only 66 percent of those, which amounts to 27.6 million, are registered to vote, according to the Electoral Commission of SA (IEC).

Voter turnout has been falling since 1999: the first post-1994 election in which a voters’ roll was used. In 1999 there was a 71.2 percent turnout, but at the last national election in 2019, only 45.3 percent of eligible voters went to the polls. This was the first time that voter turnout had dropped below 50 percent.

Given this trend of falling participation in our elections, it would not be unreasonable if only 45 percent of those on the roll voted on 29 May. That would mean about 12.5 million people voted, which is only about 30 percent of those who are over 18, both registered and unregistered.

And say the ANC gets 48 percent of the vote, which is not unreasonable, as tracking polls are showing a late surge above the 40 percent levels of support that a number of polls have found.

Read more: SA unemployment rate rises to 32.9% ahead of critical elections

If the ANC gets that 48 percent of the vote, that would translate into six million votes. Those votes would only amount to 14.4 percent of the 41.6 million South Africans over the age of 18 who could vote if they registered and turned up on the day. That would certainly undermine any claim the ANC has to a mandate in their next term, and not be a good sign of a vibrant democracy with mass participation at work.

As is the case throughout much of the world, the rate of registration is lowest among the young. The two youngest cohorts used by the IEC, 18 to 19 and 20 to 29, would gain far more political attention if their rate of voting registration were anywhere close to their share of their age groups eligible to vote.

The two cohorts combined, the 18 to 29 age group, amount to 28.4 percent of those over 18, but only 18 percent of those who are registered from all cohorts. Only 26.8 percent of 18 to 19-year-olds and 45.7 percent of 20 to 29-year-olds are registered. 

Polls done by the Centre for Risk Analysis (CRA) show a growing distrust with the political process as the key reason for low registration and not voting. The young in particular do not think the parties will deliver on their promises; they are disillusioned and believe politics is corrupt. The CRA says those who do not vote don’t distrust the electoral process, but more the options on offer. A survey commissioned by the IEC drew similar conclusions, but also pointed to disillusionment due to the lack of positive change since the last elections.

The low registration and voting rates for the young mean that the parties which aim to mobilize them could have a tough time. They may turn up at rallies to get a meal and a T-shirt and be with friends, but there is a high chance that they will not even vote. The Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) aim for the young market, but that could place a ceiling on their support base.

Read more: SA youth pessimism soars: Corruption and unemployment fears cloud future prospects

All those who are under 30 will have no direct memory of apartheid and the struggle. They are not bound to the ANC with the same ties of allegiance of their parents’ generation. If the young cohorts could be mobilised, they could form an effective challenge to ANC rule. But if they continue not to register and not to vote once they are older than 29, the challenge to the ANC may be on a reduced scale.

Many of the young are unemployed. While the age cohorts used by Stats SA in its Quarterly Labour Force surveys do not precisely coincide with those used by the Electoral Commission of South Africa (IEC), there is sufficient overlap to show that unemployment and not voting go together.

The latest reading of the unemployment rate, in the first quarter of this year, shows that nearly 60 percent of 15 to 24-year-olds were without a job. For the entire working age population, nearly 33 percent were unemployed.

The longer people are unemployed, the greater the chance of them remaining unemployed. Low growth means that the unemployment rate could continue to rise, with the result that for years ahead we could have a growing disillusioned and dissatisfied class that hardly votes.

Getting a job is heavily dependent on having an education and some experience. The more years in education, the better the chance of employment. But matric standards have been lowered to ensure a higher pass rate. And that might mean that even a matric is not much of a passport into employment. About 31 percent of the population aged 20 and above have a matric, but 18 percent of these are unemployed.

Read more: How poor governance has caused SA’s unemployment crisis: Ann Bernstein

It tends to be the case that the higher your level of education, the greater the chance that you will vote. And having a job can give one a sense of self-worth and responsibility and clear interests that will probably mean you feel you must vote. Voting, a job, and an education all go together to contribute to a better sense of citizenship and self-esteem.

Solving the problem with an expansion of grants or a government jobs programme is an expensive way to address the problem of unemployed youth. At present, many young adults are eligible for the Social Relief of Distress Grant, initially brought in as a temporary measure to support hardship during the Covid-19 lockdown. Those with children might be eligible for a Child Support Grant and those who have worked and paid into the Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF) could be eligible for benefits. Others might be helped by their grandmothers’ Old Age grants.

A Basic Income Grant would certainly help the group of young unemployed, but it would probably be unaffordable for the state if this was not accompanied by the possible lowering of grants for others.

The best solution would be far faster economic growth and job creation. It might also allow a more sustainable grant system to support those living in hardship. But we do not have the pro-investment, pro-growth and employment-creation policies to make this happen. It’s a pity the young do not go out and vote for these policies.

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*Jonathan Katzenellenbogen is a Johannesburg-based freelance financial journalist.

This article was first published by Daily Friend and is republished with permission