Young South Africans are keen to participate in politics, but on their own terms, the latest Reconciliation Barometer survey, conducted by the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation (IJR), has found. With two-thirds of the population under 35 years old, parties need to take note that conventional politicking doesn’t guarantee votes from the ‘Facebook generation’, IJR senior project leader Kate Lefko-Everett tells Polity.org.za.
Many of the large parties bank on having a traditional support base and many people assume that there is an unwillingness to change political parties, but 57% of young South Africans say that they would consider changing their vote, even if it meant supporting a different party than many of their friends and family.
“This suggests, in principle, that a traditional support base cannot strictly be counted on,” notes Lefko-Everett.
She notes that this is a positive finding. “South Africans are not overly worried about being socially stigmatised if they change parties, at least in principle. It’s an indication of a competitive and open climate. Political parties should be wary of thinking that their traditional support bases are entirely secure.”
Lefko-Everett notes, however, that there are two significant issues arising from the survey that need recognition. The first is that since 1994, while the official voter turnout rates are high, the actual number of people who are eligible to vote and actually go to the polls has continued to fall.
“I think this means there is a significant number of untapped votes that could be captured by the right party,” she notes.
The other issue is that political parties need to think quite carefully about, and work quite hard, if their support bases are not guaranteed.
In the run-up to the 2014 general elections, party leadership will have to consider for the first time in earnest how to appeal to a generation of ‘born frees’, who may be beyond the range of traditional recruiting strategies.
“I have noticed, for instance, that the Democratic Alliance (DA) has been working very hard to access young voters in the way they communicate, particularly using social media tools such as Twitter and Facebook.”
“Other parties should certainly recognise that there are many available votes out there, that their support base may not be fixed and young people are not necessarily going to respond to the same political messages that their parents do,” explains Lefko-Everett.
Some South Africans, however, would prefer to stay away from the polls altogether, and may ultimately do so in the 2014 elections. More than one-third (36%) agreed that it might be better not to vote at all, than to change parties.
Despite almost two decades of free and democratic politics, many young people are hesitant to join political parties across race lines.
More than one-third (35%) also find it difficult to imagine themselves joining a party in which they would be in the racial minority among members.
Parties, it seems, may have further to go in demonstrating that they are inclusive, and in formulating and communicating strong unifying messages that cross over historic dividing lines.
“This is a challenge in many countries and particularly in many mature democracies. The number of people that actually go to the polls continues to decline, which is an unfortunate reality, especially considering that people struggled to have a democracy for so long here. There hasn’t been as much progress in multiracial politics as we’d like to see.”
“I think there are also a lot of people who don’t think any of the main larger parties offer them a political home and what we’ve seen in the last few elections is really a shrinking number of other opposition parties. The African National Congress and the DA are really the only parties capturing, by far, the largest number of supporters in the country.
“If young people think that they can’t see themselves in either of those parties, there is a risk that they won’t participate at all,” she concludes.
Download the report above.
Reconciliation Barometer survey1.78 MB