Will young South Africans voice their frustrations at the polls?

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In the run-up to elections in May, we see frequent calls for young South Africans to go to the polls. South Africa’s median age is 28, with citizens aged 18-34 years accounting for almost one-third of the population. Given their dominance in number, young people could reshape the country’s electoral landscape. The upcoming election is an opportunity to decide who is best positioned to tackle the country’s biggest challenges – unemployment, crime, unstable power supply, corruption, and water shortages.

These calls seem particularly apt considering that the country’s youth are hardest hit by unemployment. Among 15- to 34-year-olds, unemployment stood at 42.2% in the last quarter of 2023, compared to the national average of 32.1%.

Yet if history is a guide, young South Africans will turn out in smaller proportions in May than their elders. Are they apathetic about the future of the country?

In this explainer we provide some context by looking at young South Africans’ current living conditions, how they evaluate the performance of their elected representatives, and to what extent South African youth choose to engage in politics.

We use data from Afrobarometer, an independent research network that has conducted surveys in South Africa since 1999 and currently surveys about 40 of Africa’s 55 countries.

Our analysis reveals that young South Africans resemble their elders in their high-priority concerns and their frustration with the government’s response. While they are better educated than older generations, they are also more likely to be unemployed. Importantly, while South African youth are historically less likely to vote, they are not disengaged from other forms of politics.

The status of youth: More educated, less employed

South African youth are more likely than their elders to have an education, but they are less likely to have a job. More than nine in 10 young South Africans (94%) have secondary or post-secondary schooling, compared to 83% of 36- to 55-year-olds and 64% of those over age 55.

Yet almost half (47%) of 18- to 35-year-olds say they are not employed and are looking for work, compared to 35% of the middle-aged and 10% of older citizens (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Employment status | by age group | South Africa | 2022

Respondents were asked: Do you have a job that pays a cash income? [If yes:] Is it full-time or part-time [If no:] Are you currently looking for a job? (% who say “no, but looking”)

Like their elders, young South Africans are less than enthusiastic about their personal living conditions. Almost half (45%) describe their living conditions as “fairly bad” or “very bad,” while 39% say they are fairly/very good. What is more, when asked what they consider the most important problems that their government should address, South African youth generally agree with their elders (Figure 2). Unemployment tops the list of their concerns, cited by 54% of young respondents as one of their top three priorities, followed by crime and security (39%), electricity (30%), corruption (19%), and water supply (19%).

Figure 2: Most important problems | by age group | South Africa | 2022

Respondents were asked: In your opinion, what are the most important problems facing this country that government should address? (Up to three answers per respondent were recorded. The figure shows the % of respondents who cited each problem among their three priorities.)

Is government meeting the needs of South Africa’s youth?

Only small minorities of South Africans say the government is doing a good job on their priority problems of unemployment, crime, electricity, and corruption (Figure 3). About one in 10 young respondents say the government is performing “fairly well” or “very well” on creating jobs (11%) and reducing crime (10%).

In line with their negative assessments of the government’s performance, fewer than one-third of young citizens (29%) “approve” or “strongly approve” of the performance of President Cyril Ramaphosa (Figure 4). Their views are even more unfavourable on the performance of members of Parliament (23% approve) and their provincial premier (26%), all of whom will have to account for their performance at the ballot box in the coming weeks.

Figure 3: Government performance on youth priorities | by age group | South Africa | 2022

Respondents were asked: How well or badly would you say the current government is handling the following matters, or haven’t you heard enough to say? (% who say “Fairly well” or “very well”)

Figure 4: Performance of elected leaders | by age group | South Africa | 2022

Respondents were asked: Do you approve or disapprove of the way that the following people have performed their jobs over the past 12 months, or haven’t you heard enough about them to say? (% who “approve” or “strongly approve”)

Political and civic engagement by the youth

South Africans express their dissatisfaction in a variety of ways, ranging from discussions at community meetings and protest marches to interactions with elected officials and voting.

Around the world, young people are generally less likely than their elders to vote in elections. Analysis of voting patterns and public opinion survey data show that this is also true in South Africa. Young citizens consistently report lower levels of election turnout (about 14 percentage points less than 36- to 55-year-olds) (Figure 5). Interestingly, older South Africans have also become less likely to vote over time, and the overall share of non-voters among the voting-age population has increased from 14% in 1994 to 51% in 2019.

Figure 5: Self-reported voting in 2009, 2014, and 2019 elections | by age group | South Africa | 2011-2022

Respondents were asked: In the last national election, held in [2009/2014/2019], did you vote, or not, or were you too young to vote? Or can’t you remember whether you voted? (% who say they voted) (Respondents who were too young to vote in that election are excluded.)

Young South Africans are also less likely to participate in several other forms of political and civic engagement (Figure 6). They are less likely to say they attended a community meeting during the previous year (40%, vs. 50%-58% of other age groups) or joined others to raise an issue (37%, vs. 40%-55% of older citizens). They are also slightly less likely to report having contacted a political party official (15%, vs. 18-23% among older respondents) during the previous year.

In contrast, they were no less likely than their elders to contact a member of Parliament (7%) or to participate in a demonstration or protest (16%).

Figure 6: Participation in civic and political activities | by age group | South Africa | 2022

Respondents were asked: Here is a list of actions that people sometimes take as citizens. For each of these, please tell me whether you, personally, have done any of these things during the past year: Attended a community meeting? Got together with others to raise an issue? Participated in a demonstration or protest march? (% who say “once or twice,” “several times,” or “often”). During the past year, how often have you contacted any of the following persons about some important problem or to give them your views? (% who say “only once,” “a few times,” or “often”).

Making young voices heard

Young South Africans are dissatisfied with how their government has performed on their top priorities – unemployment, crime, electricity, corruption, and water supply. Yet survey evidence suggests that the youth are unlikely to make full use of their options to hold their elected officials accountable.

Rather than simply writing South African youth off as uninterested in politics, it is important to remember that declining voter turnout is an issue that cuts across age groups in South Africa, and that youth engage in some forms of non-electoral politics at similar rates to their elders.

Young South Africans constitute a majority of the electorate, and if South Africa’s democracy is to be truly representative, their voices should be heard. While individual initiative plays an obvious role, elected officials and civil society may also be able to commit greater support to youth engagement, including reducing the administrative, financial, and personal costs that may keep some young people outside formal political processes looking in.

Asafika Mpako is Afrobarometer’s communications coordinator for Southern Africa. Email: ampako@afrobarometer.org.

Mikhail Moosa is a PhD student in history at Yale University and former project leader for the South African Reconciliation Barometer at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation, Afrobarometer’s national partner in South Africa. Email: mikhailmoosaza@gmail.com.

Matthias Krönke is a researcher in the Afrobarometer Analysis Unit. Email: mkroenke@afrobarometer.org.

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