Combatting Voter Apathy Among South African Youth – The Moral Obligation to Vote

On May 29, 2024, South Africa will hold its next general elections to choose a new National Assembly. The imperative for robust voter turnout, particularly among young people and the wider South African populace, has reached unprecedented levels.

Voting stands as a cornerstone of civic engagement, granting individuals the opportunity to assert their right to be heard. Participation in elections ensures the perpetuation of democracy, empowering citizens to elect political parties and governing bodies they believe will effectively represent their interests and address their needs.

South Africa has long grappled with a concerning trend of voter apathy among its youth. Despite comprising over 30% of the total population, the youth’s representation in the registered voter count falls significantly below this proportion. This trend is unsettling for several reasons, but primarily because the youth represents the nation’s future. Their apparent lack of interest in shaping the country’s trajectory through electoral participation paints a grim picture of South Africa’s prospects.

In 1999, voter turnout stood at 89% of registered voters, a figure that dropped to 66% in 2019. Notably, young people registered to vote, did so at significantly lower rates compared to older demographics, despite forming a disproportionately large segment of eligible voters. According to Statistics South Africa, out of approximately 11.7 million eligible voters aged 18 to 29 in 2019, only 5.6 million registered—a registration rate that falls below half of the demographic’s population. Similarly, for the 2024 elections, just over five (5) million young people in the same age range have registered to vote. There remains uncertainty, with little reassurance, regarding whether this demographic’s voter turnout will surpass previous elections, which saw a turnout of nearly 56% of registered voters aged 20 to 29.

Several factors contribute to voter apathy among South African youth:

  • A perception that politicians and political parties evade accountability for their actions, leading to scepticism about the impact of individual votes on governance decisions.
  • Heightened scepticism due to pervasive corruption within government institutions, particularly concerning electoral processes.
  • Growing dissatisfaction with inadequate service delivery, exemplified by local governments’ failures to provide essential services and persistent challenges like load-shedding.
  • Escalating unemployment rates, fuelling disenchantment among young people, with the national unemployment rate exceeding 30%.
  • A prevailing sentiment of governmental detachment from the realities faced by the youth and the broader populace, exacerbated by stark socio-economic disparities.

These reasons resonate with many South Africans, transcending generational divides and reflecting broader societal concerns. Given the country’s socio-economic challenges since gaining independence in 1994, it’s understandable why citizens, regardless of age, may feel disillusioned with the political process. Despite this disillusionment, the older population, compared to the younger populace, still feel obligated to vote certain parties into power out of a sense of loyalty, despite these parties failing to adequately provide basic services in the country. When asked why they continue to support these parties, they often cite their role in ending the apartheid regime, overlooking their shortcomings in serving the needs of the South African population.

However, the youth of South Africa do not feel particularly compelled to elect officials who will not meet the needs of the populace. Instead of voting in vain, many of them choose to abstain from voting entirely. But this raises a crucial question: do these justifications absolve individuals of their moral duty to vote? Is there indeed a moral imperative to participate in elections?

The “Folklore Theory of Voting Ethics” suggests that citizens have an obligation to vote irrespective of uncertainties about electoral outcomes. In the South African context, this implies that citizens must vote even amidst uncertainty or disillusionment, driven by their civic duty. Yet, does this obligation extend to voting without purpose?

Jason Brennan, in “The Ethics of Voting”, vehemently challenges the “Folklore Theory of Voting Ethics.” He argues that individuals are not obligated to vote if they lack the motivation, knowledge, rationality, or capacity to do so effectively. This perspective resonates with many South Africans who find their enthusiasm for elections dampened by deteriorating socio-economic conditions and a government that fails to inspire confidence.

Resolving the moral dilemma of whether to vote out of duty or abstain due to disillusionment is complex. However, it’s undeniable that for meaningful change to occur and for even a glimmer of hope toward a brighter future to emerge, young citizens must exercise their right to vote. In the democratic framework they inhabit, casting a ballot might just be one of the few avenues left to shape the country’s trajectory toward progress.

Viewing voting as a moral obligation extends beyond individual actions; it encompasses a collective duty towards others. Often perceived as an individual act, voting is, in fact, a collective action—a sum of votes that can shift power and influence. It’s about aiding others by voting into power political parties and governing bodies that will help alleviate socio-economic conditions in the state. Unfortunately, citizens sometimes overlook this aspect, forgetting that casting a vote is not just about the self, but also for the collective good.

The Ethics Institute’s definition of ethics and morality is centred around not only considering what is good for oneself but also what is good for others. In essence, voting in a democratic state should embody this principle—being noble enough to cast a vote for the benefit of others.

Siphiwayinkosi Mdluli is an Organisational Ethics Intern at The Ethics Institute.