campaigning for next year’s general election gathers momentum, the youth vote is fast emerging as one of the more critical unknown factors. Against a background of global upheaval in which restless young people are playing a pivotal role, South Africa’s youth, both a new generation of first-time voters and a vast army of unemployed and unemployables, could tip the scales one way or another.
A large number of severely disgruntled and deprived communities and sectors, including many people under the age of 34, have in the last few years increasingly participated in protest actions across the country. A key question is whether their collective vote will reach a critical point where it may eat into the ANC’s hitherto seemingly untouchable majority.
Included in this unknown factor are not only the potential votes of disgruntled poor communities, workers participating in the labour strife of last year, or large numbers of unemployed and unemployable young people, but also especially the first-time votes of the 'born free' post-1994 generation.
It is these groups that could be on the verge of unleashing the social revolution in South Africa, and about which former Reserve Bank governor Tito Mboweni warned recently. And various South African political and labour leaders as well as the National Development Plan (NDP) have referred to them as a “ticking time-bomb”.
A number of political parties are focusing much of their campaigning on these groups. None more vociferously though than the group of former ANC Youth League (ANCYL) members styling themselves the “Economic Freedom Fighters” led by Julius Malema who was expelled from the ANC.
Unlike many other parts of the world, South Africa has not yet experienced a single large-scale uprising, but rather a series of incremental protests that seem to be multiplying and intensifying.
This could lead to one of three possible scenarios:
Things may continue as now until a breaking point is reached;
Something may trigger a sudden large-scale upheaval; or
The widespread frustration may be harnessed by a political party or parties in next year’s elections, reducing the governing ANC’s majority, dramatically changing the political landscape and sending the ANC scurrying hastily back to the socio-political drawing board.
Malema’s EFF hopes to register as a political party after completing a country-wide consultative process, but has already spelt out its basic policy position in a well-written and reasoned paper, reflecting an intellectual fluency not readily associated in the past with Malema or his PR man, Floyd Shivambu. The language and style seem to suggest assistance from elsewhere.
The document provides an analysis of current and anticipated political developments in South Africa that bear an uncanny resemblance to what has been happening in the Arab world, Greece, Brazil and other parts of the world.
It rejects the policy outcome of the ANC’s 53rd National Conference held in Mangaung last December, as well as the National Development Plan (adopted there as a “right-wing, neo-liberal and capitalist” agenda). It claims that the ANC will never offer a sustainable solution to South Africa’s developmental problems.
It foresees that a “majority of the people in the informal settlements, townships, villages and other poor communities will disengage from mainstream politics and not vote in successive elections”.
Any “form of generalised uprising” will be harshly suppressed by the state, the youth will become more disgruntled under ANC leadership, and South Africa will be turned into a kleptocracy”, according to the EFF.
The solution offered by the EFF hinges on expropriation of white-owned land without compensation; nationalisation of mines, banks, and other strategic economic sectors; abolishing the state tender system; free education, healthcare, houses, and sanitation; massive industrialisation to create “millions of sustainable jobs"; and shifting the national focus from reconciliation to justice.
What remains unclear at this early stage is how much of this unhappiness among previous ANC voters will translate into a large protest or stay-away vote, and how much of it will be channelled towards new radical political parties like the EEF or the Workers and Socialist Party (WASP) born from the labour unrest and strike committees of last year.
With 70% of the nearly 5 million South Africans who are unemployed being aged between 15 and 34, jobs will be a major issue for this segment of the electorate.
President Jacob Zuma has shrugged off the EFF as being of no concern, but that could be mere electioneering bluster as elsewhere in ANC circles there definitely seems to be concern.
Although pre-election opinion polls are often notoriously wrong, a recent Pondering Panda survey of 3 585 young people aged 18 to 34 across South Africa found that 35% would vote for the ANC, 26% for Malema’s EFF, and 15% for the DA. The EFF says it believes it can obtain 60% of the youth vote.
The true test for the EFF will be whether it can field the organisation, structures and funds which, till now, have set the ANC and the DA apart from the rest. Its strength may be an ability to move freely and easily in the poorest townships.
In the meantime the EFF has received a promise of financial support from at least one source. Controversial businessman Kenny T Kunene, best known for his lavish parties where he eats sushi dishes from scantly-clad young women, has pledged his support.
Conventional wisdom has it that young people most often vote the same as their parents. On the other hand, many analysts believe the fact that the “born free” generation were born after apartheid and have no memory of the liberation struggle, nor any sentimental attachment to the ANC as the “liberation movement", could see them vote for other parties.
However, some have pointed out that while they do not remember apartheid, they are still affected by its legacy.
But getting the young people to register as voters and vote at-all could be a challenge. Only 10% of those aged 18 and 19 are registered to vote and some 35% seem to believe “it is better not to vote than to change parties”.
The organisational capacity of all parties is going to be severely tested in the run-up to next year's election to mobilise young voters.
The Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) is concerned over the low registration of young voters. However it says those aged 18 to 30 could account for over 35% of the 31.4-million voters.
In any event, the youth vote could be a big unknown capable of producing some surprises next year.