With the 2024 South African National Elections around the corner, the Democracy and Civic Engagement Unit at the Centre for Human Rights in Partnership with the Australian High Commission, South Africa convened a space in which young South Africans could engage on matters related to governance, democracy and stability on 14-15 July 2023. The democracy capacity building workshop was guided by the theme “Encouraging Youth Participation in South Africa’s Democracy.” 

Bonolo Makgale, Programme Manager of the Democracy and Civic Engagement Unit of the Centre noted that globally young people have been labelled as apathetic and uninterested in formal democratic processes. This is due to the consistently decreasing levels of youth voter turnout in elections. While South Africa has witnessed a similar trend of lower voter registration and turnout, South African youth are far from apathetic. Rather, South African youth are highly critical of political leaders and parties who they feel have ignored their needs and fail to engage with them in a meaningful manner. South African youth have the ability to direct the national agenda if they apply pressure on parties to reflect their concerns. As it stands, young people represent 22% of the IEC 2019 registered voter population. Within a broader sense, almost 60% of Africa’s population is under 25, making Africa the world’s youngest continent. According to the UN’s demographic projection, by the year 2100, Africa’s youth population could be equivalent to twice Europe’s entire population. There is a profound potential for the youth to pressure political parties to implement policies that will lead to the much-needed change that many young people seek. Therefore, the importance of voting cannot be understated. David Geyer, Deputy High Commissioner at the Australian High Commission South Africa, offered an opportunity for delegates to participate in a comparative method looking into components of the Australian democracy and South Africa’s democracy. While the two states democracies are highly similar, ideas like mandatory voting and provincial powers remain starkly different. 

Lukhanyo Neer, Chief Operating Officer  at the Thabo Mbeki Foundation, discussed the global trend name “waithood” and “youth-adult”. This emerging terminology  describes the situation confronting young people in Africa and Middle Eastern countries as they struggle to transition from adolescence to adulthood. Neer linked this waithood phenomenon  to the high unemployment rate in South Africa. The unemployment rate in South Africa is currently sitting at 32.7% with 64.18% of that rate being youth. Neer reflected on how this ‘waithood’ has placed young South Africans in a state of ‘limbo’ where they are  ‘neither here or there.’ 

A weighted question that arose in the engagements was ‘if protests are not enough and voting is the loudest voice in a democracy, what does meaningful youth mobilisation and democracy look like for young South Africans?’ Mbali Ntuli, CEO and Founder of Groundwork Collective SA, unpacked the ability for South Africa’s current electoral system to provide agency to young people in South Africa. More pragmatically, Sphamandla Mhlongo, Senior Projects Officer at the Democracy Development Programme, focused on electoral politics in South Africa and how bills such as the Electoral Amendment Act come at a crucial time in South Africa’s democracy. He talked of the hopes, fears and grievances about the potential of having independent candidates run in the upcoming elections. Hopes because this is an opportunity for young people to enter the political game and fear because accessibility for independents to register is highly tilted towards favouring political parties and incredibly expensive. 

Furthermore, the workshop explored the impact of regional bodies for the upcoming 2024 elections. With African Union charters such as the Youth Charter and Democracy Charter existing, South Africa subscribes to their ideals and vision of having youth issues prioritised and democracy at the centre of governance. Interestingly, delegates were split on the relatability of the AU in their lives. While the AU might be doing high impact work through its various bodies for youth and democracy, delegates expressed the invisibility of its work. Governments, including the South African government, need to ensure their development plans not only encompass AU values, but also implement them. 

Calls for accountability, transparency and inclusion were the most pertinent ideas raised by the delegates. The workshop produced deliberative capacity led by young voices, which is crucial for South Africa’s democratic consolidation and deepening. Some key recommendations by the delegates included: 

  • Calling government to prioritise voter education, civic education on human rights and its symbiotic relationship with democracy; 
  • Having more formal and informal spaces in which the efficacies of the South African voting system can be explored; 
  • Allowing youth to have representation in state structures and institutions for an inclusive democracy; 
  • Redefining political culture to include all marginalised people in South Africa, including the youth.

Ms Bonolo Makgale
Programme Manager Democracy and Civic Engagement Unit

Tel: +27 (0) 12 420 4199
Fax: +27 (0) 86 580 5743


 Subscribe to our newsletter