The ANC and South Africa’s youth vote


When the ANC met for its 53rd national elective conference in Mangaung last month, delegates were given four documents to use as the basis for all discussions: the National Development Plan (NDP), the Infrastructure Rollout Plan, the Census Report for 2011 and the Annual National Assessment report on the state of education.

“These reports will help delegates understand progress made and use them to develop the programme into the future,” the ANC said in a statement.

The ruling party should have included another document as required reading for all delegates: the SA Reconciliation Barometer (SARB) survey, which has been conducted annually by the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation (IJR) since 2003. The results of the latest survey were released in early December, about a week before the ANC conference.

Unlike the four documents that the delegates had to read to inform their discussions – which are all official documents and could be restrained by this fact – the SARB survey is a independent and nationally-representative public opinion poll, and the views contained in it were far from official.

The theme of last year’s SARB survey was “Ticking Time Bomb or Democratic Dividend: Youth and Reconciliation in South Africa”. It is the first survey that tries to reflect on the views of “born-frees”, people born in 1994 or after, at the time South Africa became a democracy.

The survey’s finding would have sounded a warning to the ANC that most young people do not engage in politics in the traditional way. About 40 percent of Africans under 35 have little or no confidence in political parties, and the same is true for more than two-thirds of young people of other races.

Fifty-eight percent of young South Africans said that they would consider supporting a political party different to the one preferred by most of their friends and family. This could have implications for a party like the ANC who depends a lot on the loyalty vote.

A student interviewed by the IJR in the Eastern Cape during the research explained that young South Africans had different ideas about political engagement than older generations who had lived through the democratic transition. “We have grown up in a digital age. We don’t read a lot, we Google and we Facebook a lot, and watch TV.”

The SARB survey found that just under 50 percent of all South Africans doubt that national leaders are concerned with the views of ordinary people. Forty-four percent said that they had witnessed corruption in their own communities and more than one in three believed that government was not doing enough to combat it.

“For decades in apartheid South Africa, youth and young people were looked at as the champions of a fair, equitable and democratic future. Within the liberation struggle, young activists in diverse corners of the country defied the writ of apartheid law, challenged complacent elders, fled their homes into exile and were shot down in the streets – and inspired, in the words we hear so often, hope for the future and better leadership,” writes the barometer’s senior project leader, Kate Lefko-Everett, in the report.

More recently, however, Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi has described the country’s volatile mix of “unemployment, grinding poverty and deepening inequality” a “ticking time bomb” and the National Planning Commission has described young people as “our single greatest risk to social stability”.

The barometer argues, however, that this is not how young people see themselves.

“Young South Africans regard themselves as confident, active and creative. They are optimistic about the future, but also sceptical on many fronts – they question the motives and work of political parties and the extent that leadership cares about their views, are eager about their economic prospects, are confident that the country will unite and move forward, and in some ways have begun to challenge and change the way they relate to their peers across historical dividing lines,” writes Lefko-Everett.

“South Africa’s youth are much more than the ticking time bombs and democratic dividends that they have been reduced to in our recent public discourse. It is important that we address the nuanced and complex challenges young people face with the same energy, creativity and innovation that they see in themselves.”

It is not known how many of the delegates at the ANC’s conference would qualify to be young people – in the traditional sense and not in the ANC Youth League sense – but it was clear at Mangaung that the ANC is mindful of the changing demographic of potential voters.

According to Census 2011, close to 60 percent of all South Africans are under 35 years old – 29,6 percent are under the age of 14 with a further 28,9 percent aged between 15 and 34. This means that, very soon, people who will form the majority at voting time will have no history or recollection of struggle and will have no loyalty to the ANC based on this recollection.

The babies born in 1994 will vote for the first time in next year’s general election and they, along with other young people under 35, could have a decisive influence on the election outcome.

This is one of the reasons why the conference was dominated –apart from the election of officials – by the NDP and the need to create more and more jobs.

The NDP , which seeks to eliminate poverty and reduce inequality by 2030, is a bold plan that needs the support of all South Africans to succeed.

President Jacob Zuma, in his opening and closing addresses, made it clear that the plan was not an ANC plan, but needed the buy-in of all South Africans.

Whether this signals a new willingness on the part of the ANC to be participative and inclusive – or whether it is merely election rhetoric with one eye firmly on 2014 – remains to be seen.

It is not too late for the leadership of the ANC to study the reconciliation barometer. The document could help the ruling party to understand an important part of the electorate who could be the difference between victory and defeat in elections in the near future.

Ryland Fisher, a former editor of the Cape Times and The New Age, is a media consultant. A version of this article appeared in the City Press on 20 January 2012.


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