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South Africa’s Democracy Must Depend on Youth Engagement

Last week, President Biden welcomed Kenyan President William Ruto for a state dinner, his second Oval Office visit with an African leader. Despite his thus far unfulfilled promise to visit the continent and his claim that “the United States is all in on Africa,” his administration has neglected to prioritize African issues as it navigates conflicts and competition in the Middle East, Europe, and the Indo-Pacific. As the United States and the international community assess the future of democracy in a year of monumental elections, they must pay attention to South Africa’s upcoming election.

South Africa, as the nation with the most advanced economy and the most progressive constitution on the continent, faces a major turning point. On May 29, they will hold their seventh election since the end of apartheid and the advent of universal suffrage. The African National Congress, originally led by Nelson Mandela and the most prominent organization in the fight against apartheid, has commanded a parliamentary majority since multiracial elections began in 1994. The ANC looks poised to lose that majority based on polls and a disastrous showing in the 2021 municipal elections. The “Born Free” generation, those born after apartheid, face the historical consequences of a nation besieged by racial authoritarianism through their current economic, political, and functional challenges. This election may well be a bellwether for the world to see if young people and their engagement can revive democracy and address the needs of their nation.

South Africa has the highest official unemployment rate in the world, at 33%. South Africa also has the highest wealth inequality in the world. These burdens are largely borne by young Black South Africans. Yet South Africa is still often called the most advanced economy in Africa. Brand new condos and glittering malls in Johannesburg and Cape Town coexist with shanty town-like “townships” like Soweto and Khayelitsha, notorious for rampant crime and poverty. Meanwhile, young people sit at home, desperate for work or giving up on work entirely. The unemployment figure increases to 71% for 15-24 year-olds, including those who have stopped looking for work. An entire generation growing up in the promise of a free and prosperous nation sees wealth and earns none.

Widespread corruption within the ANC, especially under former President Jacob Zuma, has further harmed trust in South African democracy, especially among young people. For example, Eskom, the state-run power utility, cannot meet its basic function. Eskom is forced to utilize rolling power blackouts, known as load shedding, to stop the inadequate power grid from collapsing. These blackouts have decimated businesses and further harm the economy. Zuma gave contracts for Eskom to his associates, who poorly managed the utility while generating immense profit off it. Zuma himself has been barred from contesting this election after he was convicted of contempt of court for refusing to testify at an investigation into corruption during his administration. Corruption within Eskom, and the way Zuma’s ANC ran Eskom, has turned a vital power system into a daily detriment for South Africans.

This confluence of factors has caused young people to disengage. South African youth do not believe the government could or would solve their problems. These problems include providing basic services, addressing unemployment, and xenophobia. South Africa’s political system is not conducive to youth participation. South African youth don’t feel as though the rights their forebears fought for under apartheid will create the future they want to see. They do not trust their government and, in many ways, they have not been given reason to.

We see similarly troubling trends with youth political disengagement here in the United States. A survey from Tufts University indicated that American youth don’t believe the government is taking action on issues they care about. They expressed a lack of confidence in democracy, but a hope for its potential. A large portion also believe that “the country is failing to live up to its promises of freedom and fairness.” Both the U.S. and South Africa, in their modern political forms, were founded on bedrock ideals of democracy, freedom, and justice, yet their young people are not seeing that come to reality. This directly impacts their engagement with the political process.

With pivotal elections happening in other major powers (Mexico, the EU,  and the UK) later this year, South Africa may foretell whether the power of democratic legacy remains strong enough to provide electoral power and to address critical issues in the nation and the world. South African democracy may falter if it only engages with the past, as the success of South Africa’s democracy will depend on youth engagement. Youth turnout in the “rainbow nation” will serve as an important barometer as to whether the next generation, both in Africa and around the world, sees democracy as a system that works with them and for them.

DISCLAIMER: McCain Institute is a nonpartisan organization that is part of Arizona State University. The views expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not represent an opinion of the McCain Institute.

Pat O'Connor, Program Coordinator for Operations, McCain Institute
Publish Date
May 28, 2024