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06 May 2019 | Story Prof Francis Petersen | Photo Sonia Small
Prof Petersen opinion piece
Prof Francis Petersen is Rector and Vice-Chancellor of the University of the Free State.


The youth must vote, and political patronising must fall; or else our calls for young people to exercise their hard-won right to vote, will continue to be ignored.

South Africa’s youth does not have a culture of voting. And it is getting worse – that much is clear from statistics.

Earlier this year, the Electoral Commission of South Africa indicated that young people aged 18-19 make up only 16% of the voters’ roll. This is a sharp decline from the 34% in the 2014 national elections.

Those who do register to vote, often decide in the end not to cast their ballots. For example, in the 2016 local government elections, only 50% of registered voters aged 20 to 39 showed up at the polls on voting day.

Apathy vs disillusionment

Is it because young people simply do not care about the future of our country?

I would be very surprised if this was the case – as it simply does not line up with my experiences with the majority of students on the three campuses of the University of the Free State (UFS). What I often encounter, is young people who are keen to make a difference in society, but who are sceptical to do it via political means.

Studies done by the Institute for Security Studies and others seem to support this, concluding that young people have high expectations of politics and democracy, but find party politics confusing and alienating.  From their youthful vantage point, they seem to cut through the rhetoric quite easily, and quickly see when the promises and actions of politicians do not line up.

This leads understandably to young people who have very low levels of trust in political leaders. They also feel increasingly alienated by government’s lack of responsiveness to their needs, poor service delivery, and corruption.

It does not seem to point to apathy, but rather that young voters are using non-voting to protest a political climate where they feel they are not being heard.

Young people have shown signs of dissatisfaction with the currently available choices of political parties – making it more and more difficult to attract them to vote for political parties they cannot relate to.

Protest more effective

And why should they vote? Young South Africans have found that they often accomplish more through protest than through participation. The 2015-2016 #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall movements bear stark evidence of this, where a concerted, coercive student effort seems to have forced the hand of government where traditional communication channels failed.

It is a dangerous situation when established systems of governance are circumvented and replaced with more radical means, simply because quicker and better results are obtained in this way.

The all-important youth voice

The bottom line is that we need our youth to become involved in order to be an effective democracy. Effective governance requires participation, and a low voter turnout weakens the quality of a democracy.

South Africa has one of the youngest populations in the world. More than 58% of our population is under the age of 30 years. This translates into a significant voter block that simply cannot be ignored.

By exercising their considerable voting power, young people can ensure that issues they deem relevant and important are prioritised.

Advances in technology and connectivity mean our youth are probably more equipped to make informed decisions than any generation before them. But somehow, all this access to information, opinions, and analysis is still not motivating them to take action by voting.

The challenge remains to provide them with political-party options that they can identify with, that actively promote issues of importance to them, and that follow through on promises with real action.

Creating responsible citizens

Our institutions of higher education are doing what we can to produce not only well-equipped, employable workers, but also good, responsible citizens.

At the UFS, we have a renewed focus on providing a safe space where openness, tolerance, diversity, and inclusivity are actively promoted. In April, we celebrated Social Justice Week through a range of events and activities aimed not only at sensitising our student population to social-justice issues, but also giving them an opportunity to actively participate in promoting it on various platforms.

Through our Free State Centre for Human Rights, the UFS is also compiling a set of guidelines for protests and political activities, making sure there is an ever-present human-rights foundation guiding the actions of and consequences for protesting students, non-protesting students, and security staff.

We train and appoint Human Rights ambassadors in our hostels to help establish mutual tolerance, non-discrimination, and transformation in on-campus living spaces.

Our Office for Student Leadership Development offers initiatives such as selective leadership programmes that cater for high-achieving student leaders who show potential.

We want to develop effective, agile, and inclusive student leaders. And, we want to equip them to become part of a new generation of responsible, forward-thinking, and innovative national leaders. If they cannot find a suitable political home that matches their expectations, they should have the skills and drive to create their own.

Yes – it is time for young people to vote.

But it is also time for our current elected leaders to take them seriously, and to really listen to the concerns of our youth.

If they don’t, we can in all probability expect more protest initiatives, perhaps of an increasingly violent and destructive nature. Moving further and further away from a healthy democracy and edging closer and closer towards anarchy.

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