Naledi Ngqambela: Undecided youth vote could swing entire 2024 elections

Naledi Ngqambela. Picture: Independent Newspapers

Naledi Ngqambela. Picture: Independent Newspapers

Published May 30, 2024


Over the years, South Africa’s youth have been seen as the future leaders, hope for many, and one of the significant solutions to change and helping conquer the crises faced in the country.

The population of South Africa consists of mainly young people, with approximately 20.4 million (63.3%) in the 15-34 age category (StatsSA, 2020).

President Cyril Ramaphosa in his State of the Nation Address painted an optimistic picture of a 30-year-old Tintswalo, born in democracy with infinite opportunities for advancement and a better life – and all this, thanks to then progressive post-apartheid government in 1994.

Latest polling predicts that a coalition will be necessary to form a government after the upcoming elections in 2024. One variable that could drive an upset, or reinforce the status quo is the high number of undecided young voters.

The skewness of South Africa’s population distribution towards this age category is concerning. This could potentially mean that as the country’s economic woes deepen, socio- economic issues increasing and political discord persisting, the disproportionate brunt therefore is endured by the youth.

The outcome of any young person’s success during this democracy, without a doubt, determines how they view the idea of democracy and what it offers in South Africa.

In reality, fewer young people are doing as well as their counterparts from 30 years ago, many are in a muddle; searching for the infinite opportunities labelled to make a success of their lives and families.

The true question here is, if young people still believe in democracy 30 years later with the myriad of socio-economic issues they face?

Africa Youth Survey revealed 35% of South Africa’s youth is still undecided, less than one in two are likely to vote

Many studies have been conducted over the years to understand the positioning of young people in South Africa. And many reveal that young people have not fared well under this democracy, as they are the hardest hit by unemployment currently, lacking opportunities which later creates alienation, particularly from economic participation and general social activities of life.

As election day approaches on May 29, a recent study titled “Africa Youth Survey on South Africa” revealed that 35% of South Africa’s youth is still undecided, less than one in two are likely to vote.

The overall state of our country has dipped over the years, perhaps at great speed over the last 10 years, with corruption sky-rocketing, party factions deepening, making the work of the government almost impossible as we face the challenge of separating politics from administrative functions.

Youth in South Africa are the biggest and the most influential cohort in the country, yet many are not willing to vote because of the state of our country in 2024.

Attesting to this, the African Youth Survey reveals that young people between 18-24-years-old across the country shows that confidence in South Africa’s future direction has decreased, with three-quarters believing the nation is going in the wrong direction. This has sky-rocketed to 24% since 2020.

At least 74% show that the country is going in the wrong direction, compared to 50% in 2020. What is even more startling, according to the report, is that 71% think the national economy is going in the wrong direction, a 10% increase from 61% in 2022.

Is democracy going in the right direction?

Democracy is fairly new in South Africa and has not proven entirely to fulfil the promises of a progressive and prosperous new dawn for citizens since 1994, there is room for improving the state of our democracy and what the next 30 years should look like.

Surprisingly, according to the report, appetite for democracy remains strong, with two-thirds (64%) of youth seeing democracy as the preferred form of government their country should pursue.

While other young people think a democratic country is necessary, at least 31% feel a non-democratic government is preferable, this is an increase of 8% from 22% in 2022.

Among many other concerns, corruption, access to job opportunities and addressing the legacy of apartheid have also become a concern to young people in South Africa.

South Africa has changed in many ways from policy and/or legislative framework, government structures, functions of the economy and its politics – some good, some bad since apartheid, and some, including the youth today, may see themselves a little better off than when apartheid ended 30 years ago.

Many may argue that the youth are the future leaders, while I view the future as now in 2024.

With this, youth should be at the forefront of enjoying the benefits of freedom and democracy, living better and prosperous lives, however, they are at the cusp of political and economic failures that have bared little success than it ought to.

In the last election, 14 million eligible voters were unregistered to vote, and about half of them were under the age of 29. The notion that youth are apathetic, not interested in politics and do not care about democracy should be done away with.

Instead, the youth are not interested in voting because the process has not produced results they had hoped for – a better, prosperous life and economically emancipated society where they are able to show for their success 30 years later while faced with shattered dreams and aspirations, forcing them to wake up daily to poverty, joblessness and alienation from society and the economy.

With the many issues facing South Africa and young people being the most affected, why should they vote for people who have not shown any solution to their success and development?

Corruption, joblessness, poor national economic growth and addressing the legacy of apartheid, according to the African Survey Youth Report are among the issues that play a pivotal role in the youth losing faith in democracy.

The youth of this country are such a powerful tool and force that it is crucial for them to be heard, seen, and recognised.

The way in which young people are engaged on platforms they resonate with is important, as this could go a long way to changing their thinking and how they view politics, the value of democracy, economic and social remodelling as we move in a new era of the next 30 years.

*Naledi Ngqambela is a writer and a researcher.

** The views expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of IOL or Independent Media.