Last weekend was a big one for South Africa, marking as it did the last chance for citizens to register to vote in the country’s sixth national and provincial election.
By January 29, close to 580 000 more people under the age of 30 had registered to vote – bringing the total number of potential young voters to just over 2.6 million.
Admittedly, 6 million young people have not registered, but 81% of all new registrations were by people under the age of 30.
Given the media focus on the youth’s apathy towards mainstream politics, we were curious to hear from young people who decided to register.
Youth Capital is a small start-up campaign, working to ensure that every young South African has the skills, support and opportunity to get their first decent job. As is typical of most start-ups, we are a small team with big ambitions.
We want to draw attention to a focused, national youth employment agenda, and our first step has been to speak to young people, face to face, about the issues that are most pressing in their lives.
In these conversations across the country, we have heard their frustrations. But we have also sensed their abundant energy and genuine optimism for the future.
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Two days before voter registration weekend, we tapped into our small but growing network via Facebook and asked if anyone was interested in hitting the polling stations to ask young people why they were registering and what they hoped to see in 2019. We did not expect many takers – but after 30 minutes, we were overwhelmed by messages from young people champing at the bit to get out there.
We recruited six young reporters, with no idea of what to expect from them. They received no payment; they were simply provided with R100 for transport and half a gigabyte of data each. Why? Because these basic resources are two of the major barriers young people face when trying to seize opportunity. More than half of young South Africans live below the upper-bound poverty line of R1 183 a month. Yet research shows that looking for work costs a young person about R500 per month, most of which is directed towards transport and internet access. That means almost half of a young person’s total monthly income is spent on the unrelenting, and often unrewarding, task of looking for work.
Armed with these resources, the feedback from our young reporters was phenomenal. Of course, corruption, skills development, education and employment were top of mind. But many young people also drew the link between national elections and parliamentary representation: they want to see younger people in Parliament, people who can relate to them and their struggles. They had a sense that young people have visions and goals, but lack the social and financial capital to translate these into reality. The stories we heard were nuanced and articulate.
A voice note from 22-year-old Esethu Sotheni, a final-year student at the Eastern Cape’s University of Fort Hare, stopped me in my tracks. He managed to interview that province’s MEC for economic development, environmental affairs and tourism, Lubabalo Oscar Mabuyane – the man described as “tough talking” by the Daily Dispatch over his stance that Mthatha has descended into chaos because of city management.
With nothing but his cellphone and a bundle of data, Sotheni pressed Mabuyane on the difficult questions. He asked why young people should register to vote.
The MEC responded that the strength of our constitutional democracy relies on the national youth vote – that young people ultimately need to chart their way forward through political participation.
Next, Sotheni wanted to know what young people could expect from the government in 2019. Mabuyane homed in on free higher education, emphasising that the state planned to build on last year’s momentum.
Finally, our reporter pushed hard on youth unemployment, wanting to understand where government’s focus would lie in 2019. The MEC said government would prioritise a curriculum review in higher and secondary education institutions, adding that South Africa needed to develop creative, innovative young adults who were not only employable but also able to create jobs.
Listening to this exchange, it was clear that the youth dividend could be South Africa’s greatest asset. Sotheni was brave, focused and hopeful. When I heard them talking, I could not help picturing David and Goliath.
There are 20 million more young people like Sotheni in the country. Many of them are, understandably, demoralised by their social and economic isolation. Yet millions of young people take up the challenge every day, looking for work when the odds are against them and taking up opportunities where they see them.
Imagine the possibilities if we got every young person through basic and post-school education; if they had the resources to connect to opportunity without it costing them almost everything; if they could be linked into networks in ways that put them in the right place at the right time…
If we crowded in around young South Africans, would our future be as brave and focused and hope-filled as they are? Yes, I think it might be.
Maharaj is innovation director of the campaign, All Young People Get their First Decent Job, at the DG Murray Trust. She is working with Youth Capital to transform the employment trajectory of a generation. For more information, visit youthcapital.co.za
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