Africa

South Africa’s Young Democracy Leaves Its Young Voters Disillusioned


At the dawn of South Africa’s democracy after the fall of the racist apartheid government, millions lined up before sunrise to cast their ballots in the country’s first free and fair election in 1994.

Thirty years later, democracy has lost its luster for a new generation.

South Africa is now heading into a pivotal election on Wednesday, in which voters will determine which party — or alliance — will pick the president. But voter turnout has been dropping consistently in recent years. It fell to below 50 percent for the first time in the 2021 municipal elections, and analysts said that voter registration has not kept up with the growth of the voting-age population.

This downward curve has mirrored the support for South Africa’s governing party, the African National Congress, or A.N.C., which was a liberation movement before becoming a political machine. Polls show the party may lose its outright majority for the first time since taking power in 1994 under the leadership of Nelson Mandela.

A new generation of voters do not have the lived experience of apartheid nor the emotional connection that their parents and grandparents had to the party. The A.N.C. as a governing party is all young people know, and they blame it for their joblessness, rampant crime and an economy blighted by electricity blackouts.

“Generational change or replacement has finally caught up with the A.N.C.,” said Collette Schulz-Herzenberg, an associate professor in political science at Stellenbosch University in South Africa.

South Africa is no exception to global trends: Studies show that Gen Z and millennial voters in many countries have lost faith in the democratic process, even as they remain deeply concerned about issues like climate change and the economy.

But in South Africa, where the median age is 28, young people make up more than a quarter of registered voters in a population of 62 million, and are a crucial voting bloc. But only 4.4 million of the 11 million South Africans ages 20 to 29 have registered to vote in this election, according to statistics from South Africa’s Independent Electoral Commission.

The commission staged national campaigns to persuade more young people to register, and data show an encouraging uptick in registration of 18- and 19-year-olds who will vote for the first time in this election, to 27 percent from 19 percent since the last election.

But we spoke with many young people across the country who told us that they would sit out the election — a political rebuke to the A.N.C. and an indication that the country’s many opposition parties had failed to woo them.

Athenkosi Fani, 27

His whole life, Athenkosi Fani has relied on the A.N.C. government, and he hates that feeling.

“I am made to depend on the system,” he said, sitting in his dorm room at Nelson Mandela University in the coastal city of Gqeberha, formerly known as Port Elizabeth. “We are raising a generation of dependent young people.”

Mr. Fani is a postgraduate student who has attended universities named for A.N.C. stalwarts, like Mr. Mandela and Walter Sisulu, but he said that staying in school was all that kept him from being yet another unemployed Black graduate.

He had a tragic childhood, worsened by the enduring poverty in Eastern Cape Province where he grew up. Mr. Fani’s mother received a social grant for him when he was born. Social grants, or welfare payments, are a lifeline for more than a third of households in South Africa — a state of affairs that A.N.C. politicians frequently remind voters about.

At age 11, Mr. Fani was placed in an orphanage when his mother could no longer care for him, and he became a ward of the state until 18. But he is gregarious and outspoken, and received a series of important boosts along his path.

To attend university, he relied on government financial aid. A provincial A.N.C. leader bought a laptop for him and paid for him to attend a monthlong traditional initiation for young men, an important rite of passage in the region. At his graduation in March, a member of the National Youth Development Agency attended, after it, too, funded him.

He has been an L.G.B.T.Q. activist since he was a teenager, and traveled to the United States to attend a Lion’s Club conference for young leaders to promote democracy. He was briefly an A.N.C. volunteer. All these experiences made him an ideal ambassador for youth issues, but also deeply resentful.

He said that he grudgingly voted for the A.N.C. in the last election as a sign of gratitude. This time, he said, he is staying home on Election Day.

“I still do believe in democracy,” he said, but added, “I don’t want any organization that gets to have so much power.”

Down deep, Shaylin Davids knows she’s part of the problem.

“The crime rate would actually go down if they start employing people,” said Ms. Davids, as she held court in her garage in Noordgesig, a township west of Johannesburg, with several friends. All are high school graduates, and all are unemployed.

Ms. Davids said she was good at school, but used her smarts to run drugs instead of attend university. An uncle she was close to was gunned down this past New Year’s Eve.

Aspiring now to turn a page, she started a computer course at a community center this year, hoping that it would land her a job if an employer looked past the tattoos on her face and fingers.

Ms. Davids’s grandmother told her that young people like her in her township actually had better prospects under apartheid. Ms. Davids is Coloured, the term still used for multiracial South Africans, who make up just over 8 percent of the population. Under apartheid, Coloured South Africans had better access than Black South Africans to jobs in factories and the trades.

Like many other Coloured South Africans, Ms. Davids feels left behind by a majority-Black government, and blames the A.N.C.’s affirmative action policies, which favored Black people, for reducing her job opportunities. This sentiment endures despite the reality that the unemployment rate for Black South Africans is 37 percent, compared with 23 percent for Coloured people in the country. But it has been enough to grow support for ethnically driven political parties.

Ms. Davids, though, is not interested in their slogans. She doesn’t follow politics, but she does follow the news. She watched bits of the finance minister’s budget speech in February, and concluded that he understood nothing about the cost-of-living crisis choking her neighborhood or how insufficient the social grant is.

Misinformation is rife, and she and her friends have heard rumors that if they registered, their votes would automatically go to the A.N.C. And even without that, she can’t see how her vote would change the country.

“I don’t want to vote because my vote isn’t going to count,” she said. “At the end of the day, the ruling party is still going to be A.N.C. There’s still no change.”

Aphelele Vavi, 22

High school was great for Aphelele Vavi. His teachers were “superstars,” he said; the cafeteria had great snacks; and it is where he discovered his love of audiovisual production, which he is now turning into a career.

Mr. Vavi spent his teens ensconced in the bubble of a Johannesburg private school, and the friends and connections he made continue to shape his network and his prospects.

He lives in Sandton, a cluster of wealthy suburbs in northern Johannesburg, the son of a prominent trade unionist — making him part of the Black elite. But he was also exposed to the harsh realities of less-privileged South Africans, like his cousins, who still live in rural Eastern Cape Province.

He said of post-apartheid South Africa: “It’s been really good to me.”

A first-time voter, he hopes the electricity blackouts that have plagued the country for years are the issue that will get other young people to vote. Studying audiovisual production, Mr. Vavi loses hours of work in a blackout. It also means a loss of connection to his close circle of friends, and turns his mobile phone into what he called “a very expensive brick.”

“As much as there’s been definite improvements, it’s not as good as it could be or should have been,” he said.

Hanging on the walls of the Vavi home is a portrait of the family posed with former President Nelson Mandela. Mr. Vavi’s father was once the leader of the country’s most powerful union, the Congress of South African Trade Unions, an ally of the A.N.C., and knew Mr. Mandela personally. All the younger Mr. Vavi remembers of that moment is “the hullabaloo of trying to find the bow tie” that he is wearing in the photograph.

Still, Mr. Vavi said that he would not be voting for the A.N.C. He said that he had read all the parties’ manifestoes, but the politician who stood out for him did so by making a joke on X, formerly Twitter. To Mr. Vavi, the quip transformed that politician, Mmusi Maimane of the recently launched Build One South Africa party, into a relatable guy. Mr. Vavi is savvy enough to know that Mr. Maimane’s and other opposition parties won’t unseat the A.N.C., but they could shake up the party of his parents.

“The hope is that because of how unlikely it is that the A.N.C. are going to be voted out, at least scare them into picking up their socks and doing better,” he said.

Dylan Stoltz, 20

When Dylan Stoltz shared his dreams for South Africa with other young white South Africans, they laughed at him.

“They say you can’t do anything in this land anymore,” he said.

Mr. Stoltz’s optimism seems at odds with his surroundings in Carletonville, a dying mining town 46 miles southwest of Johannesburg. After the end of apartheid and the collapse of mining, fortunes have changed for men like Mr. Stoltz.

His grandfather had a farm of 215 acres and a senior job in a gold mine. Mr. Stoltz works as a fuel attendant in an agricultural supply store, where he serves an increasingly diverse group of farmers.

His stepfather arranged a higher-paying job for him outside of Vancouver, Canada, where he plans to go next year to work in construction for a South African émigré.

“I don’t want to leave South Africa permanently,” Mr. Stoltz said.

Since 2000, the number of South Africans living abroad has nearly doubled to more than 914,000, according to census data. His plan is to work as hard as he can in Canada and make as much money as he can. Then, he’ll return to Carletonville to start a business and marry his girlfriend, Lee Ann Botes.

Fresh out of high school, Ms. Botes is considering becoming an au pair. It would give her the opportunity to travel, and perhaps finally see the ocean. Still, she, too, plans to return.

“Doesn’t matter how much the violence and crime can be, this is your home,” she said.

Mr. Stoltz added, “I think South Africa can come back to where it was a few years back.”

While some white South Africans may be nostalgic for the apartheid years, for Mr. Stoltz, South Africa’s heyday was during the presidency of Mr. Mandela, when he believes there was racial unity. The closest he has come to this ideal in his own lifetime, he said, was when South Africa won the Rugby World Cup last year.

Mr. Stoltz said that he would vote for Siya Kolisi, the current captain of the national rugby team and the first Black player to lead it — if only he were running.

So he’s considering voting for the largest opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, or the Freedom Front Plus, once a minority Afrikaner party that has grown to become the fourth- largest in South Africa. His grandfather is a local councilor with the Freedom Front Plus.

Matema Mathiba, 30

As a sales representative for a global brewery company, Matema Mathiba spends her days driving around South Africa’s northernmost Limpopo Province.

Ms. Mathiba spent much of her childhood in the provincial capital, Polokwane, once an agricultural center that has seen a mushrooming of large homes built by a new cohort of Black professionals. With the end of apartheid, the Mathiba family’s fortunes grew to provide a house with a bedroom for each of the three sisters, who all have college degrees.

In the struggling economy under President Cyril Ramaphosa, Polokwane is less expensive than living in Johannesburg, Ms. Maiba said, sipping a lemonade in a recently opened chain restaurant. The city is also an A.N.C. stronghold, with the party. taking 75 percent of the votes in the last election.

In the past, Ms. Mathiba had voted for the A.N.C. because, she said, “the devil you know is better.”

This election, though, she remains undecided. She is losing patience with the A.N.C., comparing the party to a 30-year-old, like herself, who should by now have a clear direction.

“A 30-year-old is an adult,” she said.

Ms. Mathiba’s church congregation of young Black professionals is her community, she says, and seeing television news footage of the A.N.C.’s tactic of campaigning in churches left a bitter taste.

“We can see through it, but can the older people?” she asked.

With a degree in development planning, Ms. Mathiba actively participates in South Africa’s hard-won democracy, reading bills and commenting online. She understands the stakes of policy-making, but as part of the social media generation, she wants to know her leaders more personally.

That she knows nothing about Mr. Ramaphosa’s family unsettles her. She took notice when Julius Malema, the firebrand leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters, an opposition party, posted something personal about his children online. But she does not agree with his policy on open borders, she said.

Data show that a quarter of South African voters will make their decisions just days before the vote. So will Ms. Mathiba.

“I’m still waiting for someone to impress me,” she said.

As a girl, Shanel Pillay loved to go to the library. It’s where she studied, hung out with friends and met the boy who would become her fiancé.

Today, Ms. Pillay says she would not risk the 10-minute walk to the library. Like many Indian South Africans living in Phoenix, a majority-Indian community founded by Gandhi when he lived in South Africa, Ms. Pillay feels that Phoenix has become unsafe. So has the surrounding city of Durban, on South Africa’s east coast. Crime keeps her indoors, producing TikTok videos to pass the time.

Ms. Pillay vividly remembers hiding in her home for several days in 2021, when Durban was gripped by deadly riots that pitted Black and Indian South Africans against each other. The violence highlighted how poor and working-class South Africans felt left behind by progress made since the end of apartheid.

Recently, parts of Phoenix have not had running water for weeks, she said.

Under apartheid policy, Indian South Africans received more economic benefits than other groups of color. Since the end of apartheid, Indians, who make up 2.7 percent of the population, have seized opportunities in education and skilled work.

Ms. Pillay wanted to become a teacher, but when she arrived at college, she picked what she hoped would be a more lucrative career: finance.

“I wanted to be successful,” she said. “Have my own house, have my own car, have a pool, although I can’t swim.”

After her stepfather fell ill and lost his income during the coronavirus pandemic, Ms. Pillay dropped out of college. Home for two years, she took a short course in teaching, and soon found a job at a small private school. On the side, she works as a freelance makeup artist.

“As an individual in South Africa, you need to be independent,” she said.

She sees no point in voting. Neither large parties nor the independent candidates vying for Phoenix’s vote have wooed her.

“When it’s time to do the action,” she said, “they can’t.”



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