This year marks the 47th anniversary of the 16 June 1976 student uprising in Soweto when young people protested against the imposition of Afrikaans by the apartheid regime as a medium of instruction and the uprising ended tragically with hundreds of young people being brutally killed. The bravery and resilience of the young people in 1976 has been a powerful theme that has in many ways ‘carried’ the youth agenda in my country at least since the beginning of democracy in 1994 where June has been themed ‘youth month’. During this month all facets of society prioritize and spotlight youth matters during the month and honour the contribution of the youth in the struggle for the liberation of South Africa. While public holidays and thematic months like these are important they have often felt performative as the reality that many young people face beyond ‘Youth Month’ in the country depicts a much more heartbreaking reality.
Now if we reflect purely on what the youth of 1976 fought for - 47 years later there is not much to celebrate; fees are still exuberant and quality education is still not accessible to the masses leaving many young people’s lives at a dead end. Structural racism still exists and learning institutions still remain untransformed and for the most part exclusionary. In 2015 we began to see a shift with the Fees Must Fall movement where the Rainbow Nation’s mask started falling off and real and urgent issues started being addressed - again driven by the agency, unity, and resilience of young people. However, young people’s agency has ‘somehow’ stopped at the ballot box with declining voter turnout of young people since 1994 and now more than ever there is an urgency to understand ‘why’ and most importantly how we can leverage opportunities to create a necessary shift here. It is no secret that we as young people have not been satisfied with the state of things in the country but this frustration needs to be fuelled into something constructive in order to see change in our country. To put it simply there is an urgent need for our agency and we can only hope this is reflected in the election next year.
The largest, and most influential voting cohort in South Africa are the youth, yet many are not willing to vote as they feel unrepresented. ~Muhammad Hussain
Too often I hear people say 'I don't know where to start' or 'Who should we vote for if not the ANC' mostly in frustration about the current state of politics in South Africa and the 'lack' of information available about our democracy in genera especially as we approach the 2024 national elections. There is definitely a misconception that there are no resources available to simplify or assist us to make these kinds of decisions but perhaps we do not have enough resources available that are 'interesting', 'simple', digestible, etc and while this may be the reality (and a fair one) perhaps the 'challenge' is much bigger than just simply having access to information but rather how the information is framed, worded, or even accessed and a much bigger concern I have is how we struggle to act or take agency of any sort and this ranges from taking the first step of registering to vote all the way to the act of voting. This juxtaposition between the very active engagement of young people particularly online and our participation in democratic systems e.g. voting, holding leaders accountable remains a fascinating one. Why is it that there seems to be a disconnect between people's frustrations and how empowered or disempowered they feel about what role they can play in making a change? Perhaps this is to be expected in a country where systems to hold those accountable have not reassured the masses, where the wheels of justice often take forever to turn, where poverty and unemployment prevail, and where corruption lies at the core of the democracy we have known since 1994. But 2024 has to be our 1994 and in that spirit, it is important that we have a closer look at the opportunities that may exist to enhance youth voter turnout.
The most obvious starting point for me would be to focus on where young people seem to engage the most - online and nowadays young people’s civic engagement is inseparable from the digital media landscape. At least most young people as we recognize and understand the barriers that digitalization also comes with which can also be extremely exclusionary. However, its power can not be underestimated as the digital space often offers a ripple effect where discussions extend far beyond so-called social media platforms. This means this may be the most promising space to leverage and enhance youth participation even far beyond the national elections if there is a commitment to understanding the ‘how’. Research in the United States, United Kingdom and Australia finds that social media use strengthens the relationship between moments of ‘self-actualizing’ citizenship and political engagement — in other words, social media may be the catalyst for political engagement between the self and the broader civic sphere. And while this Western perspective is promising we can’t ignore the socio-economic backdrop of South Africa which presents many barriers for many young people to access the digital space simply - the reality is that whatever efforts found in the digital space need to be accompanied by ‘on the ground’ and offline efforts in order to reach the masses.
"Young people are going to be encouraged to vote by other young people and their communities. You need civic engagement, social movements and concerted efforts from business, non-government and non-political spaces that encourage young people to vote and to vote purposefully." - Tessa Dooms
Additionally to this digital civic engagement is an exciting, fast-paced, and extremely innovative space where various mediums are used to encourage engagement of any sort - here is an obvious opportunity to promote and support civic education but there is also an opportunity to simultaneously develop digital literacy (opportunities & risks) to the broader society. While this space is exciting it also is a fairly new space with many risks such as data usage & surveillance, harassment and bullying, vulnerability and legitimacy of certain platforms etc and understanding this new space not only benefits young people but it is crucial that there is a whole of society approach to optimise digital platforms as the future of engagement will continue to exist online far beyond our upcoming elections. Political parties, youth-centered organizations, and the Independent Electoral Commission have an opportunity to capitalize on this. Young people are online daily and consistently and one can only imagine what a difference it would make to integrate educational content about our democracy and voting options into various mediums. The road to the national elections could be one where various 'birds are killed with one stone'.
...many of today’s youth also take to digital venues ... to claim agency that may not be afforded to them in traditional civic spaces and reimagine the concept of ‘the political’ writ large.
As we continue to commemorate the youth of 1976 for their bravery and resilience it is also equally important to be present for the pace, rhythm and vibrance of the youth of today who are in many ways still fighting 'the same fight. It is important that we open ourselves up to the new ways in which young people participate in a democracy and that we find ways to integrate this new innovative pace into our youth development and engagement interventions otherwise we may run the risk of staying stagnant politically at the expense of young people's hopes, dreams and energy. I believe the time has never been more fitting to readjust our political lenses and rather than ask ourselves why young people aren't participating in traditional forms perhaps we should ask young people what they want and need from political structures and systems and most importantly where they are participating.