Youth Citizenship in Divided Societies

South African General Elections 2014: Born Frees Under the Spotlight

 What does a generation mean?

The 7th of May 2014 was Election Day in South Africa. For the fifth time since Mandela's release in 1991, 18 million voters were called to cast their ballot. Just like in the previous elections, there was little uncertainty regarding the winner: the African National Congress (ANC) was credited with more than 60% of the votes. However, a new discourse came to dominate media space: the General Elections of 2014 would mark a turning point in the history of Democratic South Africa because 'Born Frees' would vote for the first time.

'Born Free' is the nickname given to those who were born in or after 1994; they have never experienced apartheid. They are widely expected to be the first generation for whom electoral choice can be separated from historical allegiance to apartheid-era politics. Youth disaffection of late Nelson Mandela's party, the African National Congress (ANC) became the buzz of media both locally and internationally.

"The born frees are the generation of paradox..."

The first argument made about the Born Frees regards their memory of the past, or rather lack of thereof. Most of all, they are likely to disrupt the continuous domination of those in power since 1994. They are described as an individualistic generation who is looking towards its materialistic future rather than to a shared past. Commentators assume that the youngest voters feel they don't owe anything to the ANC and thus constitute a threat to the ruling party.

The second argument made about Born Frees' political feelings is anchored in the alarming statistics regarding the socio-economic situation of the youth in South Africa nowadays. People under 30 years old are the first victims of weak education system, their unemployment rate reaches 50% and they suffer the social failures associated with poverty like dysfunctional families, violence, or HIV and AIDS.

The 'Born Frees' are the generation of the paradox: they are seen as the holders of a bright future that no one could have dreamt of in South Africa two decades ago; but they are actually holding onto a present that prevents them from reaching any of these goals: "They are the ones who want to have branded consumer goods and to participate in the social media driven culture. It is when these hopes are frustrated that the real desperation sets in. All that is left to do is to protest", affirms Johann Redelinghuys.

That being said, the very idea of the 'Born Free' to be a specific "generation" whose voting patterns are in rupture with their elders is debatable. Can we even speak of a "new generation"? What about the diverse and complex former generations, that still constitute three quarters of the electorate? What about those who did experience apartheid and did genuinely hope that the ANC would be the solution and who are now witnessing the widening gap between rich and poor in Mandela's Rainbow Nation? As a matter of fact, a broader debate starts to emerge in South Africa regarding the meaning of voting in itself.

Fighting apathy by all means: what role for the youth?

On a quantitative level, little difference distinguishes the national results of the ANC between 2009 (65.2%) and 2014 (62.15%). Symbolically however, the consensus around the ANC has faded away. Street interviews done before the elections show that it is no taboo to criticize the ruling party or to publicly reject taking part to the elections, especially amongst the youth. A group of former members of the ANC even called to vote against the ANC by spoiling the ballots or by voting for smaller parties. Their campaign untitled "Vukani! Sidikiwe!" ("We are fed up!") aimed at taking to the polls the disillusionment towards the ANC, that is so often expressed on the streets. Promptly accused of counter-revolutionary betrayal, Sidikiwe! affirmed that their campaign was "about voting - but voting tactfully and knowing your options". It described spoiling ballots as an alternative to abstention, enhancing democratic dialogue and political criticism and challenging apathy. Nevertheless, spoiling a ballot, abstaining from voting or failing to register have the same quantitative result: it does not influence final percentages. Pre-electoral debates and spoiled ballots had virtually no impact on the final results, which showed little variation from previous polls.

IEC MoreYoungSAnThanEver

Despite critiques emphasizing the fall of ANC support in both absolute and relative numbers, the fact that 12.2 million voters stayed away from the ruling party (among whom 45% were 20-29 years olds who did not even register for the elections) didn't actually make any difference to the ANC. In a qualitative perspective, crossing electoral results with racial maps, confirms that the ANC still receives the overwhelming support of Black voters; while its main opposition, the Democratic Alliance attracts mainly White and (some) Coloured constituencies. Smaller parties fail to challenge this now established binary, though the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) created by controversial Julius Malema collected 7% of the votes less than a year after the party was created. EFF festive rallies attracted thousands before the elections, revealing the void left by the over-bureaucratisation of ANC political style. But here again, with 25 seats in Parliament, EFF finally attracted more attention from the media than it represented a threat to the ANC (249 seats).

What does the discrepancy between pre-electoral media discourses and actual results tell about current political imaginaries in South Africa? And more specifically, where do the youth stand in this contested landscape?

The 2014 campaign revealed that disillusionment towards the ANC is widespread and has led to the withdrawal of trust for many observers. Nevertheless, the majority of voters renewed their support to the ruling party. The youth falls precisely between these two categories of observers and voters. They haven't waited to reach legal majority to observe, interpret and comment what is going on around them; but following the Independent Electoral Commission, 45% of the 20-29 year olds did NOT register as voters. It then seems unrealistic to expect the youth to challenge the ANC at the polls. As any other citizens, their ballots are likely to follow broader electoral patterns. The difference they could make has to be looked for in other political spaces.

Millions of young people remain mere observers with no access/no intention to vote. By doing so, they are revealing the blind spots of the model of the moral citizen tied to his voting duties. While it is impossible at this stage to measure or interpret this withdrawal from formal politics, it is clear that YouCitizen will have to explore, amongst other things, what leads a young South African to become a voter and how this role fits within a broader interpretation of citizenship.

ChloƩ Buire - Durham, UK

9 June 2014

social facebook   social twitter  social flickr  social vimeo

Durham University, Department of Geography
Lower Mountjoy, South Road, Durham, DH1 3LE, UK
YouCitizen Via @NPR: Decrying Hair Rule, South African Students Demand To Be 'Naturally Who We Are' https://t.co/jXr1wttiXU

Copyright YouCitizen 2014. All Rights Reserved.

Website designed by Wish Design