SA Elections: First-Time Voters Need More Effective Education

Thursday, 8 May, 2014 - 08:20

South Africa should invest in civic and voter education to enable young people to understand the significance of voting and what it means for our democracy 

This week, an estimated 25 million registered voters will take to the polls and cast their vote in the national and provincial 2014 elections. Young voters between the ages of 20 and 29 make up the second-largest segment of voters at a total of 5.8 million registered voters. The number of registered 18- to 19-year-olds however, remains worryingly low at only 683 201. This begs the question: do these young, first-time voters understand the importance of voting?

Currently, qualitative research is being undertaken by the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) to better understand the voting behaviour of young South Africans.

Focus groups and one-on-one interviews were conducted with young people between the ages of 18 and 24 across South Africa. A preliminary finding of the research shows that many young, eligible first-time voters display inadequate knowledge to enable them to feel that they are able to effectively participate in the election.

The importance of voter and civic education during an election year cannot be overstated. Such initiatives assist voters in better understanding their rights and responsibilities, as well as giving them sufficient knowledge about the country’s election process and political system. Voters can then understand the value of democracy, the impact it has on the system of government, and how it can be used to address the economic, social and political challenges facing the nation.

In the run-up to the 2014 elections, the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) made an effort to ensure that eligible voters, and specifically young, first-time voters, get registered. This included adverts on public and community media platforms, such as the IEC’s ‘I Vote South Africa’ (IXSA) campaign.

The IEC also distributed voter education materials on various social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Mxit. This made engaging with the IEC much easier for techno-savvy, first-time voters. The IEC also implemented a voluntary Schools Democracy Week programme in partnership with the Department of Basic Education in October last year: a first in South Africa.

Providing voter education is a legislated IEC function and plays a significant role to ensure that the elections are successful and democratic. While much has been done to ensure that young, first-time voters register to vote in the 2014 election, there is a need for more deliberate and targeted voter education, particularly among first-time voters.

Political maturity is a vital part of young people’s awareness of the importance of voting. Young South Africans, specifically those who have just turned 18 or 19, seem to be particularly uncertain over who to vote for – or whether to vote at all. A lack of knowledge and experience about politics, and the voting process in particular, also contributes to young people not participating in the elections.

As part of the research undertaken by the ISS, students were asked whether they see voting in the elections as an effective way to engage in politics in South Africa. The comments below were expressed by students between the ages of 18 and 24 in the Western Cape, Eastern Cape and the Free State.

A 22-year-old student from the Eastern Cape said: “I have not registered to vote, because if I did register and voted I would not be an informed voter. I’ve decided not to vote because I feel I do not know enough to make an informed decision.”

Similarly, another Eastern Cape student, this one 23 years old, said: “I feel like elections are a waste of time, even though people feel like they are expressing their democratic views and right to vote. I do not think many people understand the right to vote. I think most people are doing it just because they can vote. They don’t understand what it means to vote for party A or party B, they do not understand the implications of that.”

One 18-year-old student in the Western Cape explained: “I think it is important to have political organisations in South Africa, but I cannot say if my vote will make a difference. It makes a difference on [sic] the political party, but I cannot say if it makes a positive impact on me, the person who has voted.”

“I do not feel like I personally know enough of what each party is trying to bring to me. I know what party A is bringing and I know what party B is bringing, but I do not feel I am educated enough to make that kind of decision,” said a 21-year-old Free State student, while a 23-year-old from the same province said: “People are not educated. People don’t know why they’re voting, people don’t know why they should vote. So people just literally sit back and then they vote for whoever brings them more T-shirts, or … food parcels.”

Opinions such as these were expressed by a number of young people who participated in the research, suggesting that there is indeed a need for greater voter education.

If the above statements are anything to go by, the need for greater education in preparing young, first-time voters on the importance of democratic participation should be seen as a crucial factor in getting them to vote. Young South Africans need to be sufficiently knowledgeable and informed to cast their votes and participate meaningfully in the voting process.

Lauren Tracey is a researcher at the Institute for Security Studies’ Governance, Crime and Justice Division. This article first appeared in the ISS Today.

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