South Africa’s Young Democracy Leaves Its Young Voters Disillusioned

South Africa’s Young Democracy Leaves Its Young Voters Disillusioned

At the dawn of South Africa’s democracy after the fall of the racist apartheid government, millions lined up before sunrise to cast their ballots in the country’s first free and fair election in 1994.

Thirty years later, democracy has lost its luster for a new generation.

South Africa is now heading into a pivotal election on Wednesday, in which voters will determine which party — or alliance — will pick the president. But voter turnout has been dropping consistently in recent years. It fell to below 50 percent for the first time in the 2021 municipal elections, and analysts said that voter registration has not kept up with the growth of the voting-age population.

This downward curve has mirrored the support for South Africa’s governing party, the African National Congress, or A.N.C., which was a liberation movement before becoming a political machine. Polls show the party may lose its outright majority for the first time since taking power in 1994 under the leadership of Nelson Mandela.

A new generation of voters do not have the lived experience of apartheid nor the emotional connection that their parents and grandparents had to the party. The A.N.C. as a governing party is all young people know, and they blame it for their joblessness, rampant crime and an economy blighted by electricity blackouts.

“Generational change or replacement has finally caught up with the A.N.C.,” said Collette Schulz-Herzenberg, an associate professor in political science at Stellenbosch University in South Africa.

South Africa is no exception to global trends: Studies show that Gen Z and millennial voters in many countries have lost faith in the democratic process, even as they remain deeply concerned about issues like climate change and the economy.

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