Voting Is Only The Beginning

Whether we cast a ballot or not, we will have participated in the sixth general election in South Africa. In the months leading up to voting day, we have witnessed how political parties have appealed to the youth electorate by claiming that they will provide employment opportunities.

The EFF, ahead of its manifesto launch earlier this year, pledged to respond to the community’s call for job opportunities. The ANC once again promised to double the annual rate of employment by creating 257,000 jobs a year. Young people are made the same promise during every election cycle. Yet voter registration numbers seem to imply that they are not convinced.

The average age in South Africa is 24, yet voters in this age bracket comprise only 19% of the registered electorate. Earlier this year, the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) said 9.2 million eligible voters were not registered to vote, the majority of whom (about 6 million people) were under the age of 30.

The notion that young South Africans would choose not to vote is deeply concerning given that abstaining can lead to a variety of outcomes. During student protests on university campuses around the country, we saw the power and influence of young people, how they were able to mobilise and bring about change. While protesting is a constitutional right, it is an unsustainable way of exercising citizenship and fails to address the root causes of governance failure.

We need more young people not only looking in from outside the gates of Parliament, but also being part of the solution and driving change. The same people who participated in the student movements must take over the process of legislating, budgeting, and policy and regulatory implementation. Active citizenry goes beyond voting. We need to change the demographics of leadership in South Africa and we need more young people, more women, and more underrepresented groups in general, running for elected office.

We have become all too familiar with the trend of young, educated people looking for jobs on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, asking people to retweet their appeals in the hope that they will land in front of a future employer.

Whenever I see one of these posts, I think of our parents who make and have made huge sacrifices for us to go to tertiary institutions in the hopes that we will graduate and land the kinds of jobs that will eventually lead us to occupy the boardrooms they never imagined they could. That dream is short-lived for thousands, as reality sets in after graduation.

A couple of weeks ago, friends and I were debating heatedly the idea of dignity. It started off as a conversation about how far one should go in looking for help to find a career opportunity. A friend said he was once accepted for a programme abroad but lacked the funding to attend. He shared his story on LinkedIn in the hopes that he would get assistance. Many were not ashamed to say that they too had used similar platforms to help find that critical post-graduate job.

Another friend asked why the process of finding a job should have to diminish one’s dignity? Why do young, educated people have to stand on the side of the road with placards showcasing their qualifications, out of desperation for work?

We don’t spend enough time reflecting on the psychological impact of long-term unemployment, what type of future employees it creates, how it decreases one’s appetite for risk and movement within the job market, and how it creates grateful employees who fear to push the boundaries, as the risk of losing the job for which they waited so long is too high.

When you vote, I hope you reflect on your role in a democracy and an economy that owes much to its underrepresented youth, and that has done little to address their plight. What do you have to do to bring about change and how might you more effectively participate in the decision-making process? Elections take place every two and a half years, people vote and majorities are won or lost, but the power for change still lies with us.

It’s important that eligible voters participate in today’s elections. Supermajorities can be diluted when election participation is high (Justin Levitt). Even when you cannot find a political party that you support outright, you could resort to strategic voting. The idea is to find the least imperfect of a wide set of options and then to apply realism and strategy when it comes to your vote.

There are various strategies you can employ to get the best out of the political parties in the field. You might compare the behemoths with those that are less likely to make successful inroads in the national elections; then ask yourself what you can do to secure victory or some kind of impact or growth for them your region.

I believe it’s important for us young people to realise that elections enable us to register our discontent with the government substantially, either by removing incumbents and electing alternatives or by reinforcing the power of successive governments. As discontented young people and lobbyists on the outside of the system, one of the most important inroads we can make into substantive civic engagement is voting in the short term, and in the medium to long term, availing ourselves for public office as elected leaders and supporting candidates we believe in and who represent us, so that we too might become the decision-makers.

As young people, we are the ones who have to live with the consequences of our votes for far longer than the generation before us. Reversing the after-effects of a bad government is a long and painful process. When we don’t vote, it is we who must live with the consequences of bad leaders replicating bad systems.

It is important over time that we start to see more young people, and particularly more women, running for office in all political parties and at all levels of government. Research shows that governments perform better when there are more women and young people in leadership, as this amounts to a diversity of views and better representation (Edwin Ng).

Research has even shown that corruption is lowered when more women are in power (Sudipta Sarangi and Chandan Kumar Jha). There is a need for political evolution in our country and on our continent, and we need to drive the change. We need to enter positions of power and create political and economic systems that are inclusive.

Africa needs young candidates worth voting for across the spectrum. It’s equally important for us to realise that democracy works when people participate in the voting process. Exercising your vote is an important part of a vibrant, democratic culture.

We encourage you to use your vote wisely and then go further than that – avail yourself for public leadership and be the change you want to see in South African politics. 

  • Nondumiso Mbambo is an attorney of the High Court of South Africa

OPINION: Nondumiso Mbambo