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The Importance Of Active Citizenship Among South African Youth

  • 5 min read

By Lea-Anne Moses, Executive Director, and Trustee at Fundza Literacy Trust

From the historic 1976 Soweto Uprising to the courageous advocacy of Nkosi Johnson in the face of HIV/AIDS, and the powerful #FeesMustFall protests, young South Africans have played a pivotal role in driving positive change throughout our nation’s history. In doing so, they demonstrated the importance of being active citizens. However, despite this rich history of youth-driven change, there is a growing sense of despondency among many South African youth when it comes to addressing the country’s most pressing issues. 

Nowhere is this more visible than with election turnout. Take the 2021 municipal elections, for example. While turnout in general was already the lowest in South Africa’s post-democratic history, it’s especially notable that 59% of people under the age of 35 didn’t vote. With around 18 million people aged 18 to 35, that equates to more than 10 million non-votes. 

While there are any number of understandable reasons for that low turnout, it’s important for young South Africans to remember that voting is the cornerstone of active citizenship. And as the country readies itself for the 2024 general election, which looks set to be the most contested in the country’s history, cultivating that sense of active citizenship will be more important than ever. 

Addressing big misconceptions 

When it comes to encouraging voting among young people, it’s crucial to address some prevalent misconceptions that undermine the significance of casting a vote: the belief that voting won’t bring about meaningful change and the notion that individual votes hold no real value.  

The first misconception is that voting won’t change anything. While it’s all too easy to think that or to believe popular commentary that may suggest that political parties may not exactly change their attitudes about service delivery if voted out of power, that’s simply not the case. One need only look at some high-income economies globally where in almost every voting cycle, a significant change is witnessed in terms of who governs, simply because the voters were previously unsatisfied with the party in power. It is 

completely possible, and often works out best, to ensure that politicians live up to their promises.    

It’s also important to remember that, if you’re unhappy with a particular party’s performance or stance on an issue, you can vote for someone else next time. And if, after four years, you’re unhappy with that party’s performance, you can vote for someone else again. The right to vote is one of the most hard-fought for and is yours to use as you see fit. 

To debunk the idea that individual votes hold no significance, it’s worth looking at voter turnout figures again. For example, did you know that the number of young people who didn’t vote in the 2021 elections is roughly equal to the number of votes the ANC got in the 2019 national poll? Unlikely as it is to ever happen, if young people coalesced around a single party, it could well take control of the country. It’s also worth pointing out that many municipal seats (and therefore the composition of the council) are decided by a handful of votes, further demonstrating the power of each individual vote. 

At Fundza, we’re committed to ensuring that young South Africans are given the tools they need to be active citizens, including around voting. That’s why we have numerous resources that cover rights, voting, and active citizenship.       

Beyond voting       

Voting, while crucial, is just one facet of active citizenship, serving as a vital starting point Beyond the ballot box, we have witnessed the power of ordinary individuals in their community responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, where acts of compassion and solidarity helped uplift the most vulnerable. These acts exemplify effective active citizenship, reminding us that we all have a role to play in making a difference.

Another facet of active citizenship involves engaging with those in power and holding them accountable. Here again, it can be easy to fall into the trap of thinking that politicians are distant and unwilling to engage with the public. Many politicians, particularly  at particularly at the local level) are willing to meet and engage with their constituents. 

To foster a culture of engagement among young people, we launched the  “Dear Mr President” campaign earlier this year. The campaign invited young people aged between 13 and 25 to write essays addressed to President Cyril Ramaphosa. Through these essays, the young writers were encouraged to express their love for South Africa, highlight challenges their communities face, and propose innovative solutions.  If they could imagine writing a letter to the president, how much easier would it feel to write an email to a municipal councilor or raise a question in a community meeting?     

Amplifying the Voice of South Africa’s Most Valuable Resource

South Africa’s greatest asset lies in its young people. They are the future entrepreneurs, innovators, and job creators – some of whom have already taken up these roles. With boundless potential and fresh perspectives, young South Africans have the power to drive transformative change. However, if they are to shape a future that is inclusive, prosperous, and reflective of their aspirations, then it’s vital that they become active citizens at the ballot box and beyond.