Picture: THINKSTOCK
Picture: THINKSTOCK

As Britain flounders in its attempts to finalise its withdrawal from the EU, it is worth reflecting that one of the many contradictions of Brexit is that those who voted in favour of it will be the ones least affected by the decision.

In the 2016 Brexit referendum, polls indicated that between 71% and 75% of voters under the age of 24 voted to remain, yet only 64% of voters in this age group participated in the poll — compared to 90% of voters over the age of 65. Those in this age group also had a very different perspective on the question being put to them. YouGov’s figures show that 64% of voters over the age of 65 asked to leave.

Perhaps if more youth had turned out to vote, the result of the narrowly won referendum would have been different. This is an apposite example of how young people cannot ignore the processes of governance. They cannot leave decision-making to older generations when it is their future that is at stake.

In Africa, youth participation in elections and in governance more broadly is low. While Africa is touted to be a young continent with more than 60% of its inhabitants aged under the age of 35, in some countries, such as Zimbabwe, only an average of 38% of this age group are registered voters. My own research, carried out for a PhD thesis and published in Commonwealth & Comparative Politics in 2018, shows that these young citizens feel increasingly excluded and unrepresented, and this leads to a cycle of frustration and apathy.

Young people complain that the system is not working for them and feel that there is no room for them to participate in changing it.

Believing that their voices will never be heard and their votes will never count, young voters become resigned and simply stop participating

In some instances, this frustration is extreme. For example, in Zimbabwe, a generation of young people have experienced decades of political and economic stagnation. Even moments when change seemed possible have proven to be false dawns.

You can imagine the pain of growing up in an economy that is not serving the people, and a political system that is rigged against change. The first time you have the chance to vote you might see it as an opportunity to make your voice heard, only for the election to be stolen. You try again — only for the result to be the same. By the third time, your motivation to keep trying is understandably diminished.

Believing that their voices will never be heard and their votes will never count, young voters become resigned and simply stop participating.

Democracy in SA may be more established, but the youth in this country nevertheless have faced a similar dilemma for much of the past two decades. The loyalty of older generations to the ANC was so entrenched that it essentially drowned out other voices.

Younger leaders

We have, however, seen a hopeful shift in the past few years. Parties such as the DA and the EFF are making concerted efforts to appeal to younger voters. They both have young leaders and have created opportunities for people under the age of 35 to represent them in parliament.

This is in stark contrast to what happens in Zimbabwe, where the ambitions of young people are inevitably stifled when it comes to competing for party positions. They are relegated to youth wings, where they are often simply employed as “political cannon fodder” for marches or, historically, farm invasions.

Senior party members are often wary of the youth because they see them as a threat. They know that, given the opportunity, young contenders will turn the tables on them. They have therefore ring-fenced their positions so there is no space for the youth to drive meaningful political change.

Young people are also often denied access to resources because it makes them more susceptible to being “bought” by either politicians or traditional leaders. As long as the youth remain economically disempowered, money and resources can be used to capture their votes or ensure their participation in rallies or marches.

Cross-generational dialogue also has to be fostered. The youth should not be involved only in processes where they are told what to do

The long-term consequences of this are severe. If the youth are disempowered and disengaged, they not only have others deciding their futures for them, but the skills and energy that they could bring to governance are lost.

This is why civic education is so important. People don’t automatically become responsible citizens; it is something that needs to be nurtured and encouraged. The youth need to be incentivised to take the view that if they want to change systems that aren’t working for them, they have to participate in them, both at the polls and more broadly.

Cross-generational dialogue also has to be fostered. The youth should not be involved only in processes where they are told what to do. There must be genuine initiatives to bring in their ideas, but also to transfer the skills and the knowledge of those who have long held positions of responsibility. Few parties are doing this.

As SA heads to the polls on May 8, the signs are positive that young people will be there too. More than 81% of new registrations recorded at the final registration weekend by the Electorial Commission of SA (IEC) earlier this year were under 30 years old. Yet, according to Sy Mamabolo, chief electoral officer of the IEC, approximately 6-million eligible youth voters remain off the voters’ roll. 

It is hoped that those who are registered will make it their business to cast their vote. After all, the decisions we make on that day will be about the country we want to see tomorrow. It only makes sense that the youth, who are most affected by the outcome, should have their voices heard and appreciated.

• Musarurwa is a Bertha Scholar and graduate of the MPhil, specialising in inclusive innovation, at the UCT Graduate School of Business.