As South Africa commemorates Youth Day and prepares for the 2024 general elections, it is important to reflect on past elections and identify strategies to bolster voter participation in the forthcoming polls. A pressing concern is the declining engagement of young voters. Previous South African elections and Zambia’s recent electoral experiences provide valuable lessons for enhancing youth engagement and voter participation.
South Africa held its sixth democratic national and provincial elections on May 8, 2019. Despite a record number of eligible voters, totalling 26.7 million, who registered for the election, there was a significant decrease in overall voter turnout. Only 17.6 million voters actively participated, marking an 8% decline compared to the 2014 national election. Remarkably, for the first time since 1994, less than half, precisely 49%, of the South African voting-age population exercised their right to vote in 2019 (not all eligible voters are registered). This decline sharply contrasts with the 1994 election, where over 80% of registered voters cast their ballots.
Since the 1990s, there has been a global downtrend in voter turnout, according to a report by the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance. South Africa’s decline since 1994 is not unique, but it is nonetheless concerning.
The decline raises concerns about civic engagement, voter apathy, and mistrust in the political system. Understanding and addressing the factors influencing voter participation is crucial to developing strategies to promote active civic involvement and a healthy democracy.
The Afrobarometer round 8 survey data set, which interviewed a nationally representative sample of 1,600 adult South Africans between 2 May and 12 June 2021, offers valuable insights into the demographic and attitudinal factors that shaped voter turnout in the 2019 national and provincial elections.
Based on the results of our analysis, gender and age played key roles in shaping voter participation in the last national and provincial elections. South African males and the youth population (South Africans aged 35 and below) exhibited lower levels of voter turnout. This calls for targeted strategies to reinvigorate these demographic groups. Empowering young people through political and civic education, inclusive decision-making, and encouraging open dialogue can foster a greater sense of responsibility and motivate them to actively participate in shaping the country’s future.
An important aspect to note, although not captured in our data analysis, is that young South African voters may also feel a lack of representation of their political or socio-economic views among the available political parties. This may arise from a dearth of parties that sufficiently align with their interests and have a credible chance of achieving electoral success. Acknowledging that voters may feel a sense of limited choice in South Africa’s electoral process contributes to our understanding of their low participation in elections.
By way of contrast with South Africa’s youth absence from the ballot box, youth voter turnout reached unprecedented levels in Zambia’s 2021 general election. Civil society organisations and the Electoral Commission of Zambia spearheaded an ambitious campaign to raise awareness among young voters about their democratic rights. This campaign utilised various social media platforms to facilitate debates and discussions on governance and economic issues. Consequently, many young Zambian voters felt motivated to actively participate in their democracy, with casting a ballot being their obvious initial step.
The Electoral Commission of South Africa and other stakeholders should prioritise social media campaigns over traditional in-person methods to further enhance their outreach to young voters. Young South Africans are most active on social media platforms, and according to the Afrobarometer R8 data, 66% of those aged between 18-35 receive their news every day from these platforms.
Platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and TikTok offer cost-effective ways of reaching target audiences compared to traditional media channels. These platforms offer greater flexibility in tailoring campaigns to desired demographics, enabling effective youth targeting by applying filters based on age and gender.
The fear of political intimidation or violence also emerged as a deterrent to voter turnout. It is imperative to create a safe and secure environment that allows citizens to freely exercise their democratic rights without fear. Addressing any instances of political intimidation or violence is essential to nurturing a vibrant democracy.
Engaging in political discussions with friends or family was also found to increase voter turnout. These conversations serve as catalysts for political awareness and civic engagement. Encouraging open dialogue and providing platforms for citizens to voice their opinions can foster an informed and politically active electorate. Establishing community-based initiatives that promote open and constructive dialogue can help develop norms of open discussion relating to political topics. Sharing diverse perspectives and ideas could help foster critical thinking on various democratic processes and encourage more active participation in elections.
Ethnicity played a significant role in the last national election; Xhosa and Zulu voters exhibited higher turnout rates in the polls, with the former group being slightly more inclined to vote. Conversely, Pedi/North Sotho, White/European, and coloured individuals were less likely to participate in the electoral process. Recognising each community’s unique concerns and interests is crucial in designing inclusive outreach strategies. By addressing these disparities, South Africa can ensure that all citizens feel represented and motivated to participate in the electoral process.
Attending campaign rallies was also found to positively impact voter engagement. These events provide opportunities for political parties and candidates to connect with voters, address their concerns, and foster a sense of community involvement. Leveraging such rallies can mobilise citizens and motivate them to cast their ballots.
Consistent with findings in Senegal, South Africans who perceived an increase in corruption levels within the country were more motivated to vote. This raises the question of whether these voters seek to punish or dislodge the corrupt government from power, or whether influential parties and figures attempt to sway votes through bribery, thereby promoting corruption awareness (or both). Governmental corruption, for instance, has been linked to increased voter turnout rates in the US.
Moreover, expressing support for democracy emerged as a significant factor in motivating individuals to vote. Emphasising the importance of democratic values and principles throughout society can inspire greater civic responsibility and encourage more individuals to actively engage in elections.
The data also revealed that South Africans affiliated with a political party were more likely to vote but there was no evidence in the data that closeness to popular political parties such as the ANC, EFF, and DA increased voter participation. This finding underscores the need for political parties to go beyond relying solely on their popularity and brand recognition to enhance voter engagement. Instead, they should prioritise addressing the concerns and priorities of the electorate to foster stronger connections and improve such engagement.
Another unexpected finding was the inverse relationship between socioeconomic conditions and voter turnout. The results revealed that South Africans with good living conditions were less likely to vote. This phenomenon can be attributed to two factors. Firstly, as previously noted, young voters from the middle or upper class may feel a lack of representation of their views, particularly within the main opposition party. Secondly, their lifestyle may inadvertently create a detachment from political processes, fostering a sense of apathy. Addressing this challenge requires cultivating a sense of civic duty and engagement across all segments of society and increasing the inclusion of young voices from different socioeconomic backgrounds in political campaigns.
Understanding these dynamics can inform strategies to enhance voter turnout across demographics and promote active civic participation in South Africa. In a “choice-less” South African democracy, and considering the recent Electoral Amendment Bill, it becomes imperative to reform the electoral system to allow more space for independent candidates. However, this must be designed in a manner that avoids simply benefiting dominant parties through the redistribution of “spare” votes. This is vital not only for future elections but also for fostering a healthy democracy.
This article also appears on the Mail & Guardian.