Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

Since the election of Barack Obama as US president a decade ago, the spectre of the youth has been haunting many a political establishment around the world, including acting as a catalyst in the forced removals from power of deplorable (mis)leaders in Egypt, Tunisia and Burkina Faso.

So pervasive has this agency of the youth been that it has taken from obscurity to the mainstream of global politics candidates who subscribe to an ideology whose obituary was long written with the fall of the Berlin Wall.

With six months until SA’s sixth democratic general elections, data from the Electoral Commission of SA and Stats SA show that young people make up 49% of the electorate — that is 17.7-million of the 36-million South Africans who are eligible to vote in 2019.

Getting them to register and turn up to vote on election day is a minefield for any political party — one that has not been conquered since 1994. Based on the rhetoric coming from the three largest parties in parliament, a conclusion can be drawn that there is little to no appreciation of the significance of the “youth vote”.

The EFF has been upfront about its ambitions of securing 9-million votes in the election, the majority of which it hopes will come from young people. But a cursory glance at the numbers shows this will be a tall order. The party’s support in the 2016 local government elections only increased by a meagre 98,908 votes from the 1,130,640 votes it secured in the 2014 general elections.

The EFF’s sterling performance during university student representative council (SRC) elections seems to have given the party false hope. Put into context, support in SRC elections has never translated to support among young people generally. Several reasons account for this, chief among them being that voter turnout at SRC elections has remained stubbornly low, at an average of 25% across most campuses despite the introduction of electronic voting and the removal of a barrier to participation through automatic registration.

Second, the majority of young people are not in these institutions of higher learning. Of the 10.3-million young people between the ages of 15 and 24 who are unemployed, 3.3-million are classified as not in employment, education or training, reducing even further the size of the pond in which the EFF is fishing.

The DA, on the other hand, seems to be all at sea, self-mutilating in a corner unprovoked, as one analyst aptly noted. Having suffered a loss of 60,450 votes during the 2016 local government elections, down from 4,089,215 votes in 2014, its prospects seem bleak in its current battered shape. Whether it has the wherewithal to reach the target it has set for itself — to drag the ANC’s national electoral support below 50% and win majorities in the Western Cape, Gauteng and Northern Cape — remains unclear.

What is clear, however, is that the DA, like the ANC, does not recognise the power of the youth vote and has no strategy to attract it. When the ANC got to its electoral conference at Nasrec in December 2017 it understood very well that the 2019 elections would be an uphill battle, even with former president Jacob Zuma out of the picture. This was a big motivator for David Mabuza’s faction to abandon Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma in favour of Cyril Ramaphosa.

The ANC had suffered a loss of 2,834,441 votes in the 2016 local government elections, down from 10,958,634 million votes in 2014. It would, therefore, be reasonable to expect that at this point in the electoral calendar the party would have presented a much clearer electoral programme than the confused “Thuma Mina” message.

In addition to the sustained belligerence of the Zuma faction within its structures, the Zondo inquiry into state capture will be an albatross around the ANC’s neck going into these elections. One of the unintended consequences of the commission’s establishment is that it has become a battleground for ANC members to continue with their unfinished business from Nasrec.

Zuma and his aggrieved legions remain steadfastly committed to promoting the agenda of “either us or there will be no ANC” from within. A slight decline in electoral support in 2019 will probably prompt calls for Ramaphosa to step down at the ANC’s national general council in 2020, as occurred within the party after the 2014 and 2016 elections.

In the absence of an honest self-appraisal by political parties of their own shortcomings, it is safe to conclude that young people will once again be ignored going into the 2019 elections. This poses a particular challenge to the youth given their consistent demands for a change to the status quo. Is it not time to consider creating political platforms that articulate their needs and aspirations for the future? If the answer is in the affirmative, they would have to come out in numbers to register and show up on election day.

• Mtwesi is a political strategist and entrepreneur.