With the recent State of the Nation address (SONA) officially behind us one cannot ignore the claims of the perceived disengagement of young people in politics as a whole or perhaps in political processes in the past such as elections and the question has always been why? This is one of many questions I continuously try to find the answers to but perhaps what does deserve to be highlighted is the very very clear engagement of young people in ‘unstructured’ and ‘unconventional’ forms of participation such as activism, more importantly the use of all forms of digital media to express their concerns and hold those in power accountable. Or perhaps it is a very specific profile of a young person who engages on that level too and not the ‘ordinary’ person? I observed the various build up activities in the past week that took place online in an attempt to make politics palatable and to also highlight the priority areas that young people felt needed to be addressed ahead of the annual SONA and while these were engaging and important one cannot ignore that they were to a large extent also exclusionary. Those who felt disinterest whether it was motivated by a lack of access, knowledge or apathy were not in those spaces, those who did not feel confident engaging in English were limited and excluded from those spaces and unfortunately those whose connectivity or device failed them against the backdrop of the worsening load shedding crisis where also not in those spaces. So while we can acknowledge very valuable and important attempts to engage young people in political topics which affect their lives in direct and indirect ways, we also need to be candid about the growing risk of exclusion that digitalisation comes with and it is of course an additional layer to other accompanying and compounding challenges named above.
What was extremely clear prior to the SONA as well as during was that young people are definitely not uninterested or disengaged from politics when their mere outrage and expression online is observed. One thing is clear, South African young people are vocal, frustrated and extremely in touch with the challenges that our country faces and a very clear ‘impatient’ tone was visible across many social media platforms - there is a need to change things now and most importantly there is a recognition that this is a collective civic duty required of every citizen. This alone could not only translate into visible change in voter behavior in the 2024 elections but it could be the beginning stages of a shift in the way we interact and perceive politics.
WE are the nation and feel the consequences of the actions of those in power the most and without a collective shift we cannot expect visible change in the near future. This energy is enough to work with to start to combat other accompanying challenges such as political futility (...if citizens feel that a specific political activity will have no desired outcome…) and apathy (...a lack of interest or apathy towards politics).
I think the narrative of a disengaged South African youth is simply not true but there are also clear consequences to not using opportunities such as the ‘pre SONA’ momentum to not only prioritize and spotlight the concerns of young people but to also center them in the discussions where solutions are tabled. The challenge with big prestigious events such as the SONA is that they can feel performative and disengaged bearing little to no tangible solutions (vicious cycle of mistrust in government). How do we begin to change how we perceive accountability in a country where there is a serious crisis with accountability? The engagement and interest of young people alone will simply not be enough without this (amongst many things..). After the SONA I was left hopeful but I was also concerned as there is a lot to ‘fix’ ahead of the 2024 National Elections and this time what we do have on our side is a VERY visibly engaged youth and some of the answers needed may lie in the ‘what now’ and what we choose to do with it.