A call to action: Why encouraging South Africa’s youth to the polls needs more than rhetoric

The 14 million strong youth vote has the potential to tip the election, yet one gathers that this grouping is neither understood not sufficiently engaged for their participation.

Alexandria Procter, NYDA Board Member and CEO DigsConnect.com

Published Feb 1, 2024


As South Africa heads to its most significant election since 1994, one that is likely to shape its future for generations to come, one grouping stands out in particular for political interest – the youth vote.

The 14 million strong youth vote has the potential to tip the election, yet one gathers that this grouping is neither understood not sufficiently engaged for their participation. Understanding youth voting behaviour is a critical matter of interest to increase levels of turnout in 2024.

In the most recent local government election in 2021, we continued to see a trajectory of declining youth participation. In 2021, in the 18 – 19 year old grouping which at the time constituted 1.8 million voters, 90% did not register to vote. In a similar vein, in the age group 20 – 34, less than 20% registered compared to 90% of voters over the age of 40.

This is not merely a statistical quirk; it is a call to action, a reminder that the democratic foundations of our nation need active participation to thrive. We stand at the precipice of the 2024 National Elections, a crucial moment that requires our collective engagement.

While high levels of disengagement have been pegged on the socio-economic conditions of South Africa’s youth, in particular high levels of youth unemployment, South Africa’s voting trends are not dissimilar to the rest of the world. Young people in most democracies where voting is not compulsory vote less than their older counterparts.

This is a matter of interest as today’s youth are considered the most educated generation which is typically a factor correlated with higher electoral participation. Often commentators will reflect on President Obama’s and the Democratic Party’s victory in 2008 and the mobilisation of younger voters while missing an important narrative. In 2008 the youth vote was not necessarily mobilised, it was consolidated. The Democratic Party was effective at getting young people who were already registered to vote for them rather than increasing turnout of young voters.

Researchers cite the challenges to voting which are often amplified for young people. This includes attempting to understand the first time registration process, dealing with overwhelming nature of politics and being associated with a peer group that displays lower participation in general. Think about the focus on voting within your locality and the confusion this creates for students which are often first time registering voters.

Young people are also perceived to be less immersed in the social settings such as trade unions or religious groupings that encourage voting.

Over the past few months and as we move closer to the election cycle the National Youth Development Agency (NYDA) will work with the Independent Electoral Commission, the Government Communication and Information Systems and grassroots civil society organisations in a voter education and registration campaign.

This initiative is our commitment to fortifying the pillars of democracy, with a particular emphasis on enhancing youth participation in the upcoming 2024 National Elections. Our campaign links to three significant objectives.

First, we should avoid simplistic statements such as “its easy to vote – just register”. Voting in fact is incredibly complex. Where and how do I register especially when I might study or work away from where I grew up. What is a manifesto. What is a ballot and how do I navigate it.

How do I interact with political parties. What are independent candidates. These are questions none of us should take for granted and should form part of a voter education curriculum that can be rolled out through traditional and social media as well as in person in schools and high education institutions.

Second, peer to peer voter education has proven to be the most successful strategy for engaging young people in voter registration and participation. Young people are most likely to be willing to be engaged by their counterparts. In this regard, one can utilise a strategy of vote tripling – encouraging a young person to encourage three others in their circle to register and turnout. This is a feasible number and when done at scale enough to make a difference.

The NYDA’s National Youth Service program where close on 20 000 young people are also working through grassroots organisations deep into communities creates an important ecosystem for this development work.

Finally, we should meet young people where they are. Our own analysis tells us that young people are motivated by opportunities. Opportunities to work, to study, to be volunteers, to travel. By engaging young people through opportunities and more importantly linking opportunities to political processes we can ensure young people are engaged though activities that are important to them.

The first registration weekend provided an encouraging sign of things to come – close on a million new registered voters – the majority of them young. As we approach the second registration weekend, let us continue to move beyond rhetoric and simplistic statements towards real and tangible voter education that will encourage young people to take their place in South Africa’s young democracy.

Let us embrace this partnership, celebrate our shared victories, and march towards a future where the voice of every young South African echoes in the hallowed halls of democracy.

By Alexandria Procter, NYDA Board Member and CEO DigsConnect.com, and Waseem Carrim, NYDA CEO.