Empowering South African Youth for a Prosperous Future

For South Africa to prosper, we ALL must come to the party!

By Tebogo Suping

As the South African electorate heads to the polls next year in its seventh democratic general elections, much has been said about what is touted to be a watershed moment. Political players have begun canvassing/electioneering, albeit covertly/indirectly, with many an analyst, activist and opposition leader boldly pronouncing that “2024 is our 1994”.

With that said, we find ourselves in a precarious situation where there currently is an alarming rate of youth who abstain from participating in or are disinterested in elections, as has been stressed throughout the years, something which we should not simply leave as a diagnosis of “youth voter apathy”.

This challenge requires us, together as a society, to find time and space to temperately introspect about the past 30 years of democratic rule in our country and where we find ourselves today, and allow for the diverse and divergent views and lived experiences of all to come across and be considered.

It has thus become our national task to encourage the youth to play a key role in steering the country’s future, especially through electoral processes, which is a view not only held by myself. 71%[1] of the adult populace agreed that it is imperative for the youth to take the lead in voting, according to a survey conducted by the South African Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) on youth voter participation post the 2021 local government elections.

Yet there are many critical issues plaguing our growing democracy which serve as a huge deterrent in the willingness of the youth to actively participate in both political and democratic processes.
Young people continue to face the biggest brunt of the failures of the state to create a conducive environment and adequate spaces for them to thrive optimally. Over and above high unemployment rates, there is also the challenge of socio-economic inequality where almost half of the South African population (47%)[2] are reliant on social services grants for survival. Thus serving as a hefty burden placed on the bending shoulders of the current generation.

Statistics further show that young people aged 15-24 and 25-34 are the most vulnerable in the South African labour market today, with the unemployment rate in these age groups reaching 61% and 39.9%, respectively, last year, according to Afrika Tikkun Services.[3] This is among the highest unemployment rates in the world, and this has been the case for South Africa for over a decade.
More alarming though, is that over one-third (3.5 million) of young people aged 15–24 years are currently not in employment, education, or training (NEET)[4], with most being from and based in disadvantaged areas, including rural communities, where opportunities for employment are few and far between.

Not only that, but this number of people, and more, further rely on the government for schooling and education, safety, healthcare and other basic amenities. This demonstrates that as much as many strides have been made in uplifting the standard of living of the poor, it has not nearly been enough. In fact, one might say that we are fast becoming a nation of state dependents with a youth population of grant seekers.

Moreover, we have a policing system that is becoming dysfunctional altogether, with a healthcare system functioning at failing state – where pregnant women have been compelled to stage a protest against sleeping on the floor due to a shortage of beds and young children still falling victims to the indignity of dying in pit toilets – South Africa finds itself at its lowest moment post the first democratic elections of 1994. Those who are honest and brave enough to say it would go on to say that indeed South Africa is a country in crisis!
And the situation that will likely arise from these circumstances is no doubt a catastrophic and socially explosive one, including the shunning from actively participating in elections, needing much urgent attention and interventions.

So, what is to be done, you may ask.

This very beautiful nation of ours and its people are in dire straits, and the desired change we seek to see will not take place by way of magic, but calls upon all of us as South Africans, particularly the youth who make up much of the country’s population, to stand up and play a part in building a democratic culture where all voices are heard; all hands are placed on deck and all hearts striving for the creation of hope in the midst of the distress that we find ourselves in.

While I may not have all the answers to this complex question that needs clear-headed consideration, I believe that one way of responding to this quagmire is for all of us to decide what personal gains we are willing to concede for the greater good and what part we are prepared to play in actively participating in democratic processes pre, during and post elections, including encouraging those within our reach and scope of influence to do the same.

For it does matter that we all take a stand for that which we are convicted by and speak up against that which no longer serves us and our collective interests. Our ask needs to be much higher from all public representatives; and all our votes combined have the power to make that very clear.

In playing our part in mitigating the challenges of the minimal involvement of the youth in democratic decision-making, we at ACTIVATE! Change Drivers have devised a strategy of activating the youth and encouraging them to stand up and be counted among those who are dedicated to making South Africa prosper again. Our strategy consists of making civic education accessible at grassroots levels and conducting community activations – three of which we have already executed in Kagiso Gauteng on the 3rd of June, Ntuzuma KZN on the 16th of June and Lenyenye Limpopo on the 29th of June -to much appreciation from the youth participants present on the day. This work is made possible through strategic collaborations with our partners the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP SA) and the IEC in engaging and upskilling young people on voter education, electoral and democratic processes and encouraging them to register to vote for the upcoming 2024 elections.

But what is this democracy that we speak of?

I am of the belief that indeed democracy is a slow process that requires careful consideration and all our efforts in its safeguarding. It is a pathway and a means towards the attainment of sustainable development; and not a destination. It is a set of principles by which we can be led by and uphold our elected representatives on.

We need to further note that it serves as a subset of values and standards which we continuously need to engage on; critique and deconstruct for the purpose of enshrining them in our everyday lives and the pursuit for continuous improvements therein.

Because in the wrong hands, democracy can be deemed by those who are oppressed at the bottom of the ladder as being of no value and not representative of their basic needs; an outcry which requires us to pay careful attention to at all levels and spheres to ensure that no one is left behind in our collective pursuit of reimagining the ideals of the society of our longing.
What is therefore absolutely needed is for all South Africans, both young and old; white, yellow or black; rich or poor to cast aside but for a moment, that which divides us to focus on what is needed…electing a government that we can hold accountable to uphold the rule of law.

And it is important that we take young people with us in reshaping political culture in South Africa and the region; which is a feat that requires a deliberate investment in placing democracy where it vests; at the heart of the people; by the people.

The responsibility then lies amongst us all, from all poles of society, to gather our collective resources in the continuous capacity building of all young people with their vast potential and agency to lead the charge towards playing a leading role in building a brighter future for South Africa.

For it is in the presence of our inaction that things can and will get worse under our watch. And that absolutely cannot be the ending of our story.



[1] https://www.elections.org.za/content/Documents/Research-and-Statistics/Voter-Participation-Surveys/2021-IEC-Voter-Participation-Survey-Results/
[2] https://theconversation.com/47-of-south-africans-rely-on-social-grants-study-reveals-how-they-use-them-to-generate-more-income-203691#:~:text=South%20Africa%20has%20one%20of,Social%20Relief%20of%20Distress%20Grant
[3] https://afrikatikkunservices.com/sa-youth-unemployment-at-national-crisis-levels/
[4] https://www.dhet.gov.za/Planning%20Monitoring%20and%20Evaluation%20Coordination/Fact%20Sheet%20-%20NEETs_%20March%202023.pdf


About the author:

Ms Tebogo Suping is the Executive Director for youth network ACTIVATE! Change Drivers. She has vast experience in strategy development, corporate social investment, facilitation, civic education and training. She describes herself as a strategist at heart, driven by love for people and a passion to create opportunities for them to thrive. Part of her role in the civic and civil society space has been to develop and implement programmes that enable opportunities to meet young people where they are at grassroots levels. As an advocate for youth development and civic education, when she is not mothering, Tebogo offers herself selflessly as a mentor to young people and strongly believes that building a better, brighter future for South Africa is the responsibility of all who dwell in it.

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