Courting the South African ‘youth’ voter

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Dr. Ronesh Dhawraj is the SABC News Research Editor

South Africans head to the polls for the country’s seventh (7th) general election on May 29, 2024.

Approximately 28 million voters are eligible to cast a ballot in these elections, the highest ever since the democratic dispensation.

A quick look at the certified voters’ roll confirms the largest voting bloc remains the 30 – 59 age group, accounting for just over 17 million or 63% of all registered voters.

This is probably where serious political players need to focus their campaigning energies if they intend to make an indelible mark in the election. This is an important demographic for obvious reasons.

There is another important age demographic, the 18-to-29 ‘woke generation’

However, there is another very significant demographic that demands attention in this election. It is the 18 to 29 age category or the so-called ‘youth’ demographic. This is a bloc of voters with very little or no experience of apartheid pre-1994. The issues are different compared to their parents and grandparents. And voting loyalties may be altogether different.

For the 2024 general election, just under five million (4 958 826) 18 – 29-year-olds are registered to vote, comprising around 18% of the voters’ roll. This figure, though, is just a fraction of the 11.1 million 18 to 29-year-olds who could have potentially cast a ballot come May 29. Thus, there is a ten-percentage point difference between the voting age population (VAP) within this age group.

For political parties, this is a gold mine.

The social media generation…but are political parties ‘listening’?

Remember, as argued earlier, this is a generation without direct experience of apartheid or the liberation struggle. This is also a voting bloc with zero historical ties to any of the organizations-cum-political parties that are often credited with delivering freedom to this country. Therein lies the opportunity: opportunities to influence and opportunities to articulate well-crafted persuasive political messages.

But what are some of the issues that appeal to this hugely influential generation of social media fundis? And do election manifestoes in their current form and shape really appeal to this group? Do the issues truly resonate with this group? If so, how? What about the medium of the message? Do 18 – 29-year-olds consume electoral messages in the same manner as their parents and grandparents? Where does, for example, social media feature in the media mix? And are political parties attuned to these consumption patterns? These are just some of the questions that serious political players need to confront as the battle for the hearts and minds of every voter heats up in the race to May 29, 2024.

As an illustration, a look at the social media footprint of some of the major political players does not paint a very encouraging picture. There is a disjuncture. Election campaigns are still primarily being waged via traditional media platforms (radio, television, print), with minimal communication conducted on social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter (now X).

Of all parties, the African National Congress (ANC), Democratic Alliance (DA) and Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) seem to be the dominant voices on both avenues. The EFF, notably seems to be leading the pack in this regard. Despite only bursting onto the scene in July 2013, the party seems to have identified the ‘pulse’ of the young voter, their main constituency.

Politicians forget that election campaigns are expensive. They require a lot of capital, both financially and in the form of warm bodies. Social media platforms are visual and allow for mostly inexpensive political campaign messaging. These messages can be tailored using audio, video, live streaming, text and images. The opportunities are endless.

Very importantly, political parties need to understand that election campaigning has migrated to a mix of both traditional and non-traditional media portals. The powerful mobile phone in this regard becomes a potent weapon in the hands of the younger generation. Not only can political parties use the instrument to quickly and immediately communicate their election campaign messages, the humble mobile phone becomes even more lethal when combined with last-minute campaigning on Election Day where zero restrictions are placed on voter appeals via mobile phones in the hands of potential voters waiting in line to cast their ballot. The DA used this reality to effect maximum damage to the ANC in the 2016 local government elections. Politicians like Barack Obama and Donald Trump did the very same in the 2008, 2012 and 2016 United States presidential elections too.

See below stats on the most dominant South African political players on Facebook and Twitter (now X):

PARTY OCT 2017 FEB 2024 MAY 2019 FEB 2024
ANC 416 549 669 000 668 000 1 100 000
DA 493 027 689 000 557 000 739 000
EFF 1 300 000 2 100 000
Information sourced by the author, February & April 2024

In the interests of fairness, please see the social media footprint of some of the other major political players, as of April 2024:

Inkatha Freedom Party 44 000 14 300
Freedom Front Plus 27 000 151 000
United Democratic Movement 11 000 9690
Action SA 107 000 111 000
African Christian Democratic Party 48 000 18 800
Rise Mzansi 42 000 12 600
GOOD 15 000 6839
Information sourced by the author, April 2024

But do young people turn up on Election Day?

Over the years, young voters have been called all sorts of names, including apathetic, disinterested in politics and disengaged with the political processes of the country.

Despite the assumption that younger voters would rather stay away from the ballot box on Election Day, there is tangible proof that this is not a lost generation altogether. They do vote, in line with international voting trend averages of the demographic.

For example, in the 1999 and 2004 general elections, voter youth turnout averaged around 44%.

In the 2011 and 2016 local government elections, voting for the age group 18 – 29 averaged 58.5% and 60.5% respectively.

In the last general election (in 2019), 57% of those in the 18 – 29 demographic turned up on Election Day.

And in South Africa’s last election in 2021, 71% of those aged 18 – 19 voted, while 35% in the age band 20 – 29 cast a ballot. A notable caveat to add here is national voter turnout for the 2021 municipal elections was 46%.

When measured against countries such as the US, Canada and the UK, there does not seem to be anything out of the ordinary with South Africa’s youth voter turnout.

For example, according to the Statista website, youth (18 – 29 year-olds) participation in elections between 1972 – 2020 hovered anything between 39% – 55%. The highest youth turnout rate was in 1972 when 55.4% of voters between the ages of 18 and 29 voted in the election. In the 2020 election, participation stood at 55%, 44% in 2016, 45% in 2012, 51.1% when Obama was elected for the first time in 2008, 49% in 2004, 40.3% in 2000, 39.6% in 1996, 52% in 1992; and 43.8% in 1988.

In the UK’s 2017 general election, the estimated youth turnout was anything between 53% to 72%.

And voter turnout in the 2019 Canadian elections was 54%.

Young people do not represent a homogenous lump of passive voters

Going into the May, 29 general election, political parties need to realize that young voters are not one homogenous group of passive voters. They are highly engaged, educated, well-read, obtain news and information from a plethora of media sources; and will no doubt turn up on Election Day.

If younger voters do not choose your political party on May 29, perhaps it is time for some introspection. For example, of all the political players that have thrown their hat into the ring for the election, how many have acknowledged the dire youth unemployment crisis South Africa currently finds itself in? Are they even aware of the stark numbers issued by Stats SA?

If not, please see below for just what I am referring to:

15 – 24 59.6% 62.1% 60.7% 59.4%
Expanded 70.4% 71.2% 70.1% 69.1%
25 – 34 40.5% 40.7% 39.8% 39.0%
Expanded 50.3% 49.8% 49.1% 47.57%
Source: Labour Force Survey, November 2023

Politicians also need to realise that most seismic policy changes normally originate from the urban areas and the middle classes. This is one voting bloc that has repeatedly shown around the world that they are the drivers of change.

In South Africa, approximately 11.1 million or 40% of all registered voters reside in the eight metros.

And, of this important stat, some 1.5 million or 13% fall within the 18 – 29 age group.

This presents politicians with another valuable opportunity to unlock potential voter support.

With just over 50 days left to the elections, politicians still have ample time to appeal to this very important voting bloc, either in the metros or elsewhere in the country.

All that’s needed is a willingness to listen and be flexible enough to alter campaign messages accordingly.

Never before in the history of elections have campaigns had this amount of opportunities surface to engage.

And social media feedback is instant…and in real-time.

Understand the potency of the hand-held mobile phone to engage, communicate and persuade.

There is still time!