Beyond the ANC: how youth is finding its political path, or walking away
Many born-frees are shunning the polls, but others are working for what promises to be a very different future
Sinawo Tambo was born ANC.
His father, a former teacher and an ANC politician, was imprisoned for almost a decade under apartheid. The politics of the ANC filled his childhood. It defined every aspect of his family life.
Now 22, and a student of English and politics at the University of Cape Town, he has rejected his ANC inheritance, choosing instead to take a leadership role among his peers – for the EFF.
On a sunny Thursday afternoon in the run-up to the election, Tambo and a group of EFF friends set up a stand on UCT’s main concourse, hoping to get students to sign up for the party, a red gazebo marking the spot. Next to them, an SA Students Congress stand sported the yellow and green colours of the ANC, the party Tambo was born to join.
“I became disillusioned,” Tambo explained. And reading changed his ideas. “I looked past the veneer of [the idea that the ANC] is the political party that gave us freedom, that lifted us from apartheid, and actually engaged with the policy perspectives of both political parties.”
Tambo serves as chairperson of the EFF student command in the Western Cape. He hopes his support for the party of Julius Malema will help to bring the substantial changes he says he hasn’t seen under the ANC in the 25 years it has been in power.
“[The ANC is] not a political party that encapsulates the structural changes I think should be happening in South Africa,” he said.
Tambo, like many other born-frees, is redefining his role in carrying the dream of 1994 forward. He is passionately hoping to convince his fellow students that a vote for the EFF will make a difference.
Many of them have given up on party politics. According to voter registration analysis by South African Citizen Surveys, only 56% of people aged 18 to 29 have registered to vote for the 2019 poll. And of those registered, 31% – 1.7 million – are classified as “unmotivated”, and are unlikely to cast their vote on Wednesday.
Among 18- and 19-year-old first-time voters, only 18% are registered. This is despite the Independent Electoral Commission having run a campaign aimed at increasing the number of young voters.
But for some young people, the decision not to participate in the election does not reflect apathy so much as a deeply political act.
Chwayita Deliwe is eligible to vote but has decided not to do so. Instead, she participates in politics by working for the activist group Equal Education.
The 19-year-old lives and works as a community organiser in Khayelitsha, where she mobilises mass action over safety and basic sanitation in schools. Her involvement in Equal Education has brought her in direct contact with politicians and senior police representatives, advocating for the rights of young people at school.
Deliwe is unimpressed with party politics. Politicians, she said, make promises. “And they don’t keep them, for years. So it seems pointless for me to vote. Why am I voting? What am I going to gain?”
Disillusionment with the ANC is hard for those raised in the party who still feel some level of emotional connection to it. Some who have lost faith see no hope of any other party bringing change and have chosen not to vote at all.
‘A constitutional right’
During service delivery protests in Caledon in early April, young people were at the forefront of the crowd. One of them, Nolothando Bontso, expressed her frustration loudly.
“We’re not voting! We don’t want any member of any party to come and say: ‘We’re going to deliver, we’re going to give you jobs’. We’re not interested in that,” the young woman said, as residents stood behind her nodding and cheering in agreement.
Other born-frees, however, say they are motivated to act in the face of the apathy of their peers.
For 18-year-old Johannesburger Lara Gilmartin, hearing that only 18% of eligible first-time voters would be participating in the election prompted her to go and register. “I felt the need to do this because it’s been given to me as a constitutional right, and I felt I needed to voice my opinion through my vote,” she said.
Though she is leaning towards voting for the DA, she’s still weighing her options. With so many parties to choose from, she says, she doesn’t necessarily have to vote for a large party for her voice to be heard.
Gilmartin is one of 2.2 million undecided voters going into the election. According to Citizen Surveys, this group has the collective ability to significantly change the outcome of any party’s electoral performance.
Gilmartin is aware of the need to make a choice that has an impact. And she is aware, too, that change in the country has been too slow. Apart from some shifts in social policies that aim to redistribute income, she says, it is hard to see “physical” evidence of change.
“You hear about it, but you don’t really see people being equal … I haven’t seen the changes where I live,” said Gilmartin.
Deliwe agrees: “There has been change, but it’s too little change. It’s not change that’s really visible.”
Bontso pointed to her personal experience of Caledon as proof there has been very little change in her lifetime. “We want houses. People have stayed in Caledon for 20 years but they don’t have RDP houses.”
Born-frees have not seen the new life that was promised to their parents 25 years ago. Unemployment is officially over 30%, there are growing revelations of corruption in government, and many point to how little change has come to their communities. On top of this, some believe young people are not heard in the corridors of power.
“The lack of interest by young people in this year’s elections is expected,” said Phiwaba Madokwe, UCT student and another EFF student command leader. “Young people have been excluded throughout the establishment of the democratic South Africa.”
Deliwe believes age is a factor in how seriously she and her colleagues are taken. They have access to key decision makers because of the work they do, but their youth counts against them in how much they are heard.
This is not a primary reason she has decided not to vote, but she thinks her experience is not unique and may account for other young people stepping away from the election.
“When they turn 18, they can start to vote. But how can they vote when politicians have done nothing for them while they’re in school?”
Among the born-frees there are also loyal ANC supporters. Buyile Matiwane, a student at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology and chairperson of Sasco in the province, is a strong defender of the party.
“I don’t think there is any other party that is as substantive as the ANC,” said Matiwane. “I support the ANC and I support the ANC on its vision for society.”
He thinks the problem is that the ANC promised more than it could deliver, and people don’t realise how much has actually been achieved.
“One of the biggest problems … is that post-1994 [the ANC] promised people it would deliver at a rate of 120%,” said Matiwane. “So, even if they delivered at 100%, people would believe it is a failing organisation, because of the expectations of our people on the rate of change.”
Matiwane argues that these expectations have created restlessness among young voters. “We’re less patient about the change that we believe needs to happen to transform our society,” he said.
South Africans under 25 were, theoretically, born into a free country. As such, the party of liberation does not carry the same emotional weight as it does for their parents, Tambo explains.
“We were born in an era where we’re able to diagnose the problems of South Africa outside of the nostalgia of liberation,” he said. “We don’t share that emotional link with the ANC.”
Caleb Kay, the DA Students Organisation chairperson at UCT, was never an ANC supporter. Before joining the DA two years ago, he supported the Independent Democrats.
“I hate to be defined by the colour of my skin. Of course it plays a really big role, but I don’t want to be known as someone who got things because I’m coloured,” Kay said. For him it is important that the party recognises individual merit, rather than focusing on race.
Kay believes some young people don’t understand the importance of getting involved in politics. They think it is a dirty game. “I don’t think a lot of people realise whether you vote or not, it actually still affects you,” he said.
Kay argues that the DA has demonstrated in the Western Cape that it has what it takes to address some of the country’s major economic challenges. He thinks the party has made a difference in areas where the ANC has failed.
“Within my family, for many years the issue was unemployment, and seeing most of them employed now shows me that the economy in the Western Cape is growing,” said Kay.
He says he has witnessed drug abuse and gangsterism where he lives in Mitchells Plain. For him, crime lies at the root of many of the challenges he sees, including unemployment and poverty. He says these issues are not being addressed with the intensity they deserve.Tambo argues that liberation in itself has not fixed anything: “Post-1994 we gained political freedom, but not economic freedom.”Madokwe echoed this: “Us being born free was a lie. We have been told throughout our lives that we are happy, and we’ve been expected to be happy. But young people of South Africa have been sold a dream. 1994 was a dream.”It’s a dream many young people are now challenging. Deliwe said: “They say that South Africa is an equal country, but there’s no equality in this country.”