Youth and voter registration in South Africa
The Independent Electoral Commission approached S&T to help understand what was limiting voter registration among youth, and design appropriate strategies for improving the situation. Jowie Mulaudzi describes the project.Declining numbers
Voter turnout for the 1994 general elections in South Africa was recorded
at 85%; subsequent elections have failed to get beyond 70%, and figures
for youth are far lower. This may be a world-wide trend - but it is also
a worrying one.
In the last election, the IEC had to embark on emergency campaigns to
encourage people in their later teens and early twenties to register.
Importantly, the IEC is now taking a more planned and long-term approach.
S&T was commissioned to help deepen the IEC understanding of factors
related to low voter registration and turnout amongst youth, and develop
appropriate strategies to deal with the problem.
Within their broader process, the IEC commissioned S&T to run focussed
discussion groups with young (16 - 21years old) black people in the previously
disadvantaged areas of Mdantsane and Noncampa in the eastern Cape, Seshego
and Mahwelereng in Limpopo, and KwaMashu in KwaZulu-Natal.
Acquiring an identity document
The hurdles facing voter registration start before the voters roll:
no one can register on the roll without a bar-coded identity document.
Young people in rural areas are least likely to have IDs. Unemployment
and poverty leave little disposable income for people to travel to towns;
and anyway they face limited service facilities for acquiring their ID.
Youth participants also cited the poor service they receive at the hands
of Home Affairs personnel, which makes acquiring IDs more unpleasant than
its value. Examples included lost applications requiring re-application
fees, being told to come back on particular dates only to be given yet
another date for collection, making the whole process time-consuming and
costly. A common complaint related to Home Affairs' requirement that young
people have to bring the ID documents of both their parents when applying;
or providing records from primary school. In both cases circumstances
effectively barred some young people from applying such as being raised
by relatives or a single parent and lack of proper record keeping by schools.
Young people were also put off by what they regard as government's failure
to deliver, especially in rural areas. We recruited youth who did not
belong to any political party or structure. As a result their level of
engagement with politics and development was minimal. This reflected points
made in the literature that civic and political engagement at an early
age improves local involvement and sustaining engagement through to later
Knowledge of the electoral process
We found a high level of confusion about the management of the voters
roll that impacted on those who are still at school but expect to move
out of their parental home when they complete secondary education. Some
participants believe it is futile to register in their home area, because
by the time an election occurs they will have moved to other areas in
search of better opportunities. They do not understand the transferability
of registration, which the IEC should address in its communication campaigns.
On its own, the IEC can do very little to address the challenges facing
young people regarding voter registration. However, through selected partnerships
with other players, a lot more can be achieved. The following are examples
of areas for effective partnerships:
- To improve the service quality (real and perceived) of the Department
of Home Affairs. A partnership with Home Affairs should also consider
sustainable mechanisms (i.e. not only during election time) for taking
their services to the people, via mobile ID application and voter registration
offices which could enable young people and others to apply for IDs
and register at the same place.
- The Department of Education is important for school-based application
and registration programmes.
- Working with Government Communication and Information Systems (GCIS)
can facilitate concerted strategies to deal with the concerns of youth
and encourage them to register. They could come together at the Multi-Purpose
Community Centres, for example, which are provided by GCIS to ensure
that disadvantaged communities are provided with one-stop service points.
- Working with youth structures including National and Provincial Youth
Commissions, the Umsobomvu Youth Fund and youth NGOs. Effectively partnering
these and other structures working with youth will enable the IEC to
address the problem of low voter participation amongst youth both in
the short and long term. Short-term issues relate to improving youth
registration figures for the forthcoming elections; long-term measure
include the design and implementation of effective youth civic engagement
programmes that provide young people with practical experience of developmental
issues shown to increase political participation. "Letsema"
and the (long-awaited) national youth service are national programmes
that lend themselves to such partnerships.