Academia: Apathetic youth a thing of the past

12 03 2009

Changes to our political landscape have energised young voters, and by turning out in numbers to cast their ballot, they will shape our future

March 11, 2009 Edition 1
Imraan Buccus
Source: The Mercury

IT’S voting time again. This time, the youth vote has attracted considerable attention. There seems to have been an explosion of political activity among young people, a revitalisation that we haven’t seen since the years leading up to our first democratic elections in 1994.
Before 1994, there was a great focus by the youth on the anti-apartheid struggle.

Here in Durban, students at the then University of Natal were working with trade unions and forming the Black Consciousness Movement in the 1970s. In the 1980s the then University of Durban Westville came to be known as the intellectual home of the Left.

Things changed rapidly after 1994, though – the euphoria of our victory over racial capitalism died down, the world became engulfed by rampant consumerism and young people became less focused on politics and more on material acquisition.

Now, in 2009, they have emerged with renewed political energy. This has been due to the changes in the ANC, the emergence of Cope and the general ferment in the country that has famously led to, in journalist John Pilger’s words, South Africa being “the most protest-rich country in the world”.

More than a million young people have registered to cast their vote for the first time and more than 6 million appear on the voters roll for the coming elections. And across the country, young people dominate in the grass-roots poor people’s movements that have organised thousands of “service delivery protests” in the past few years. This has led to a debate about the “youth vote”, with some trying to understand where this “youth vote” would go.

Perhaps the starting point should be to suggest that just as there is no such thing as an “Indian vote” or a “women’s vote”, there is no such thing as a “youth vote”. Young people are not a homogeneous group – they range from being obscenely wealthy to being desperately poor. Some see politics in narrow ethnic terms, while others subscribe to a wider vision of the nation.

Wealthy young people occupy popular spaces and are easily recognisable in their fancy cars and meaningless conversations in expensive restaurants. Many of them have benefited from ANC links and ANC policy, often leading to personal enrichment via access to tenders.

In this context, there is no doubt that a fair number would vote for the ANC. However, the extent to which the ruling party has become overwhelmed by issues of corruption and morality may affect the extent to which the black middle-class youth would continue to vote for the ANC. Some surveys have shown that the black professional class is likely to largely abandon the ANC out of disgust at corruption and the antics of ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema.

Cope’s emergence has energised and excited several young professionals, and this could mean that a significant percentage of the middle class, across racial lines, could vote for Cope. Clearly, the DA would also get a significant number of votes from middle-class young people.

While it is difficult to predict where the votes of poorer young people would go, there is no doubt that they would take into account their social conditions and make instrumental calculations that would benefit them.

But even so, different people will tally their calculations differently.

Some may accept the pro-poor rhetoric of the ANC. Others may remember that relatives lost jobs at factories as a result of the brutality of neo-liberalism. Yet others may understand the rapid changes taking place in the world.

While we have always known that market fundamentalism does not work, recent events in the world economy have made it clear that markets can’t dictate to the extent that they have before. Can you imagine the US treasury and the International Monetary Fund going around in 2009 and talking to developing countries about good regulation and good corporate governance?

Add to these international changes the changes happening in the ruling party in terms of its strengthened alliance with Cosatu and potential movement of policy to the Left, and poorer young people may well identify some hope.

This situation potentially increases the chances for material changes in their lives.

However, for many young people, political expression goes beyond elections and electoral politics.

In making calculations about what would benefit them most, many are choosing not to engage formally. As in previous elections, the major grass-roots poor people’s movements are taking a “No Land! No House! No Vote!” position. They argue that none of the political parties are pro-poor and that they therefore prefer to operate autonomously from party politics.

Their aim is to build up power for their organisations and movements against the state, irrespective of which pro-rich party happens to control the state.

Young people will vote as they see fit, or in some cases choose some form of bottom-up grass-roots mobilisation over party politics.

But one thing is clear.

Our young people are not apathetic. They will shape both the outcome of the election and the grass-roots resistance to the state after the election.

Imraan Buccus is a researcher. He writes in his personal capacity.

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