Gianluigi Guercia / AFP / Getty Images
Gianluigi Guercia / AFP / Getty Images

Young South Africans staying away from polls as elections near

Born-free generation looks at politics differently from their parents, who lived under apartheid

JOHANNESBURG — The year Simangele Shabalala was born, her parents voted for Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress (ANC) in South Africa’s first open elections. The ANC won a parliamentary majority, marking the end of apartheid.

Shabalala, 19, remembers that on election days, her mother would leave before 6 in the morning to join the long voting lines and not return home until the afternoon. The ability to vote signified freedom, and Shabalala long looked forward to joining those lines and marking her own ballots.

South Africa’s national elections on Wednesday will be the first in which she is eligible, but she won’t be voting.

“I’ve always had this dream of voting,” she said. “I’ve always had this dream of me putting the cross there, but all that’s changed.”

Shabalala is part of the so-called born-free generation, meaning she was born after apartheid ended. She and her peers have been accused of political apathy — only about one-third of 18- and 19-year-old South Africans are registered to vote — but for many, it is disillusionment with and fatigue from the political situation, not indifference, that will keep them from the polls.

“I know what’s going on. I like to follow up on things in my country,” she said. “Tell me why I should vote.”

These elections mark 20 years of democracy in South Africa. Though President F.W. de Klerk of the National Party began the process of dismantling apartheid in 1990, the 1994 vote is widely thought of as the end of apartheid, with the ANC, which has been the ruling party since, seen as the liberator. Though the ANC’s campaign materials still carry slogans like “Do it for Madiba” (Mandela’s Xhosa clan name), young black voters are increasingly turning away from the loyalty that their parents often still have for the ANC.

I do find politics quite interesting. I know what’s going on. That’s my problem – I know what’s going on.

Karabelo Molapisi

20-year-old South African who says she won’t vote

For Shabalala, appreciation of those who fought and died for freedom doesn’t equal ANC loyalty; on the contrary, she feels that those leaders would not support the current government. She is disheartened with the corruption and the problems with education and sanitation throughout the country. She registered at the request of her mother and with hope that she would find a party to support but has since decided that none of the parties deserve her vote. Still, she grew up on stories of the treatment of her parents’ community during apartheid, and she understands why her mother, who struggled to support her children on a domestic worker’s salary, still supports the ANC.

“She voted for a [government subsidized] house. She got it. She voted for her kids to have free education. I got a free education,” Shabalala said. “She wants me to vote for ANC because she believes that everything that we have we got through ANC.”

Lacking a voice?

According to Lauren Tracey of South Africa’s Institute for Security Studies, young people are traditionally a difficult group to encourage to vote. Though young South Africans are directly affected by politics in areas such as corruption, youth unemployment and education, young voters don’t always believe they have a voice in politics.

Born-frees have lived only under the governance of the ANC, and it’s expected that President Jacob Zuma will be re-elected. In the last several months, he and the ANC have been implicated in corruption scandals involving suspected misspending of government funds on his home. 

For Karabelo Molapisi, 20, misappropriation of tax money is directly related to the children she sees without shoes or textbooks. She disapproves of the current government but doesn’t have faith that her vote would make a difference.

“We all know what the outcome will be,” she said. “It’s going to take a lot of generations to move the ANC.”

These economic issues are also personal. Molapisi recently lost both her parents, and now she and her brother support themselves. As a university student, she worries about finding a job in an environment with staggering rates of youth unemployment. Though her parents were oppressed under the apartheid system, she believes they had better job opportunities than she does now. She feels frustrated by how little power South African citizens have but doesn’t see a better option.

“I do find politics quite interesting. I know what’s going on,” she said. “That’s my problem — I know what’s going on.”

Other barriers

Campaigns across South Africa have attempted to get young voters excited. The Independent Electoral Commission (IEC), which runs South Africa’s elections, launched a campaign called I Vote South Africa (IXSA), which focuses on getting young voters to consider personal reasons for voting. Social media have figured prominently in the campaign, with the IEC getting more than 200,000 “likes” on its Facebook page and over 43,000 followers on Twitter.

Courtney Sampson, who works as provincial electoral officer for the Western Cape’s IEC, believes individual party campaigns have played a big role in getting voters excited. He disagreed with the sentiment that there is apathy among young voters. For South Africans, he said, voting is almost sacred, and he sees enthusiasm about the first elections in which the born-frees can vote.  

“Our democracy is 20 years old. It’s a celebratory election for us,” he said. “I don’t see apathy. I see South Africans that really want to participate in this process, and I see people who are really grateful.”

But for some unregistered South Africans, it’s neither apathy nor disillusionment that will stop them from voting but physical barriers.

Godfrey Ndove, 18, recently moved to Johannesburg from Malamulele, a township in the northern province of Limpopo. Last autumn, resident protests over the demarcation of municipalities meant that schools were closed and guarded by police, effectively blocking registration. For him, voting is a democratic right and a necessity. There are villages near his township where the community shares one water tap and there isn’t proper sanitation. Schoolchildren in his area have to share textbooks with others who live in different areas, and the teachers don’t have chalk for the blackboards.

Ndove knows which party would have gotten his vote and is disappointed that his voice won’t be heard. Even though he’s dissatisfied with a lot of issues, he said he thinks that the ANC is the only party with enough experience to run the country and that the others are just theorizing.

“A democratic country — that’s where people are supposed to be asked when decisions are taken,” he said. “We were supposed to be given the opportunity to change.”

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