OPINION | Youth must be informed of power of voting

For 2019’s national and provincial elections, the Independent Electoral Commission of SA has registered 3.3million voters in the Eastern Cape.
As per the Census 2011, there are close to four million eligible voters from a population of 6.5 million in the province.
The number of youths (the so-called ‘first time voters’) aged 18 and 19 registered to vote in 2019’s general elections in the Eastern Cape stands at 42,000, while the number of elderly residents, aged 80 years and older on the same voters roll, is about 119,000.
This is 42,000 out of a provincial youth population of about 309,970 18- and 19-year- olds.
This means only 13.5% of eligible first-time youth voters in the province are registered to vote in 2019’s general election.
While it was largely reported that the results of the 2016 local government elections indicated South African voters were generally more informed about democratic processes and the roles of political parties in service delivery, even then the youth voter turn-out was worryingly low.
It is clear elderly people in the province (80 years and older) see more value in participating in a democratic process such as an election, than our youth.
This begs the question:
If the province’s pensioners understand that one of the pillars of a democracy is citizen participation in government, why is this message not filtering through to young people?
A reflection on the manner in which civic and democracy education is done – particularly that intended to build youth agency – is needed. This conversation should also reflect on the resourcing of these initiatives and the extent to which they reach young people.
This is critical because a democratically conscious youth who express great levels of civic agency are bound to grow into democratically conscious and responsible citizens.
Successful democracies depend on the effective participation of citizens in democratic processes. This is not only the citizens’ right but also their duty.
While facilitating voter education is one of the mandates of the IEC, and one it does well, there are, however, great limitations with IEC education.
It only focuses, for example, on who is eligible to vote, how to vote, where to vote, where and when to register and what the ballot paper looks like.
This is not civic or democracy education – it is not dealing with the ‘why must you vote’ question.
This is the key question young people are grappling with – why vote? What will the vote change influence?
The power of the vote in influencing policy and giving a mandate is not unpacked in many of the IEC educational campaigns and this is where NGOs like Afesis-corplan and others, whose work is aimed at deepening democracy, must come in.
There has never been as pressing a time as now, to link the vote to the socio-economic struggles of young people and to use every vote as a mandate-giving moment. Youth can also, in numbers, use their vote as a recall mechanism if those in power fail to address their pressing needs.
With all the socio-economic challenges confronting them, young people cannot afford to be bystanders in the country’s democratic processes and expect policy targeted at their needs to emerge thereafter.
They have to play a meaningful part in shaping the country’s future and its policies.
And voting is only one step in that process.
Elections give legitimate status and power to elected leaders. Once this power has been delegated to those elected, the role of the youth thereafter is to make sure this power is not abused.
They should never give up their right to hold government accountable and should never delegate such a responsibility to others, such as pensioners.
The low numbers of registered youth voters in the province indicates there is a need for more deliberate and targeted voter education that will particularly target young voters.
In response to that question of why must we vote I say:
You need to vote because every election matters; you as an individual matter; the choices you make matter.
In your hand lies power and that power is in your vote.
Your choice will have a very direct and concrete effect on your daily life.
Voting is a simple and painless process and with the availability of many voting stations, you are guaranteed to spend little time in the queue.
There is currently no deadline for registering to vote in the 2019 general elections.
Go register to vote, but your actions must not end there; you also need to follow your vote by holding those you voted for accountable to you through various legislated means until the next election.
Zwanga Mukhuthu is a programme officer responsible for advocacy and communications at Afesis-corplan, an NGO contributing to community-driven development and good local governance in the Eastern Cape. He is a youth, and writes in his personal capacity...

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