South Africa's promise delivery gap

One Young World Ambassador Erik de Ridder is a co-founder of InkuluFreeHeid, a non-partisan, youth-led organisation created to enhance political engagement in South Africa. On May 7 as South Africa goes to the polls, Erik reflects on the political context and young peoples attitudes.

With some having spent a lifetime behind bars and others having died to fight apartheid participation in our democracy is a responsibility for every South African citizen.

As South Africans, we tend to agree on very little, but one thing we have been able to reach some consensus on is that not enough has changed for the majority of the population since 1994. 


InkuluFreeHeid has eight chapters across South Africa working together to promote youth engagement with politics.

There is certainly no shortage of proposed solutions to the litany of problems that South Africa faces. Some will nationalise everything that has a financial value, others will create 'job opportunities' by increasing government spending and others will create 'real jobs'.

South Africa has achieved much in the last two decades of democracy but people are growing restless, people are fed up. In the words of former President of Finland, Martti Ahtisaari:

'What matters is how leaders behave after they gain power. Are they mainly interested in enriching themselves, or are they pursuing egalitarian policies that create opportunities in a society?'

Current trends in light of poor service delivery and the protests that result form it, apparent corruption, financial mismanagement and society’s obvious dissatisfaction marked by violence of varying forms, puts this question at the centre of our political discourse. 

Protest voting

As should be expected, civil society, the media and political parties have all come out stating the importance of voting in these elections. But a new movement entered the election debate, one that encouraged people to register to vote yet mark their dissatisfaction by spoiling their ballots.

This radical call comes from the fact that many have lost faith in what the country offers us in terms of leadership. Voting rates among young people in particular highlight this issue. 

Have young people lost interest?

According to research conducted at the Electoral Institute for the Sustainability of Democracy in Africa (EISA), during our last electoral cycle young people could, if not already, lose interest in participating in constructive democratic processes. The research asserted:

'Increased voter registration in 2009 may not be indicative of greater political interest: rather, a 15% increase in voter population between 2004 and 2009 means an average increase of 3% per year, which is not much more than the average population growth rate of 2.4%. Population growth may therefore better explain the higher number of registered voters, especially amongst those who have come of age to become eligible voters.'

Data also points to declining rates of participation in unions, clubs and societies, which in the past served as focal points for social, economic and political engagement. A survey conducted by the National Labour and Economic Development Institute (NALEDI) found that 40% of young people in formal employment do not belong to trade unions. A further 40% of young people aged between 18 and 24 are not employed, nor are they studying or participating in workplace training.

A worrisome picture emerges even from tertiary institutions, where participation in student council elections and social groups is very low. The 2009 Student Representative Council elections at the University of the Witwatersrand and the Durban University of Technology generated an average turnout of 23% and 25% respectively.

Despite this, the argument that young people are simply not interested in democracy and politics is dismissive and fails to recognise their discontent.

Understanding why youth participation is low

Young people are largely at the front of protest action because they feel the brunt of the frustrations that political leadership has created and they want this corrected. Taking to the streets, albeit ineffective in most instances, is their means of expressing their expectations of political leadership. The problem with this means of political expression is that it can be destructive to communities. 

It is wrong to say young people are unable express themselves logically and constructively to South Africa's political debate. Much has been done outside the partisan political arena to create broader democratic, political participation on the 7 May 2014. The IEC, faith based organisations and other members of civil society cannot, any more clearly, give you and I reasons to go and vote.

The people who really need to motivate us to vote are the candidates themselves and they have failed to do so. The reason why a call for ballot spoiling gained traction, the reason why increased voter registration has been largely unimpressive is the gap between what is promised and what is ultimately delivered by our political leaders.

So with a flurry of manifestoes released by everyone contending the election, here are some suggestions to take into account.

Manifesto integrity 

A manifesto would really serve our people. Let's ditch antiquated political slogans and go beyond criticism of what the incumbent has failed to achieve. A manifesto needs to deliver substance and answer the tough questions the electorate ask.

Simply resorting to populist answers to questions at the forefront of the majority’s collective mind does not make a good manifesto. Jobs will always be needed, equality will continue to be sought and poverty must be eradicated. So promises under any of these headlines will never be regarded as going over and above what is expected.

Detail is a problem for most politicians, detail holds them to account on clearly defined deliverables. The danger is that all they seem to do really well, is promise ambitiously and fail to deliver, severely angering people. We are then left with lack of faith in our leadership and no-one to hold to account. So who can blame us when we don’t want to vote and prefer to take to the streets to vent our frustration?