Lessons from Brexit: SA youth take note – own your future. – BizNews, 2 August 2016

Van Heerden says the youth should take note of what happened in Britain and make sure they put pen to paper and hold political parties more accountable.

By Gerbrandt Van Heerden

With the 2016 municipal elections around the corner, several opinion polls have been conducted to give an indication of how South Africans will vote on the 3rd of August. Survey polls do not necessarily translate perfectly into actual votes, but they do give an indication of voter intention and where the possible so-called ‘swing vote’ may lie. Many political commentators, analysts and politicians believe that this year’s election will be the most contested election since South Africa’s democratisation in 1994.

However, another important election was held just recently which had international political and economic ramifications. The United Kingdom voted to break away from the European Union, a move which revealed a country divided by age, class and education lines. Age was especially one of the deciding factors of Brexit.

When one studies how the UK voted in the Brexit referendum, interesting trends come to the fore. Younger Britons were largely in favour of remaining in the EU as opposed to their older counterparts which mainly supported Brexit. An eve-of-result by YouGov (an international internet-based market research firm) illustrated that 75% of people aged between 18 and 24 years wished to remain in the EU. In contrast, 61% of people aged 65 years and older supported a leave vote.

Another poll by YouGov indicated that on average, people in the 18 to 24 years age group will have to live 69 years with the consequences of Brexit as opposed to retirees that will only have to live with the decision to leave for 16 years. So we have established that younger people were more inclined to vote for the Remain camp and thus, were the unhappiest with the result. Young people will also feel the strongest impact from Brexit since they will live much longer with the consequences than most of the leave supporters. So where were they on the day the referendum happened?

Former Prime Minister, David Cameron, who resigned from his position just days after the result was made public, stated that “The will of the British people, is an instruction that must be delivered”. Yet, the beginning of July saw tens of thousands of people, many of them who are twenty-somethings, protesting in the streets of London and mainly espousing the message that leaving was a mistake and should be reconsidered. Ironically, it was the younger generations, who failed to turn out to vote even though they would be the most affected by Brexit.

Although turnout is harder to pinpoint, graphics from the BBC and FT data illustrated that areas with younger populations had lower turnout levels. Figures from FT data’s graphs showed that voter turnout increased with age, with retirees coming out in droves to mark their ballots. Brexit was accomplished with 52% of voters choosing to leave the EU against 48% of those who chose to remain. That is a four percentage point difference.

The possibility exists that the Bremain camp could have won had younger voters been as enthusiastic to vote as their older peers. If Brexit was unavoidable, even with a higher turnout from millennials, at least it would have reduced the Leave campaign’s majority to such an extent, that the whole idea of the camp’s victory would have been highly controversial. Some argue that had the voting age been lowered, it would have had a considerable impact on the results. But the phenomenon of young people not voting has been a global trend and South Africa is no exception.

Statistics in 2015 by the IEC indicated that more than 2 million people aged 18 to 19 years are eligible to vote. However, only a mere 16% of this segment has so far registered to vote. Only 51% of people aged 20 to 29 years (or one in two) are registered to vote. Older generations however, are more likely to be registered, with 88% of people aged 60 to 69 years, and 90% of people aged 70 to 79 years registered. Voter apathy has the ability to distort election results.

In the 2014 national elections, the ANC received 62.2% of the votes cast. However, when you compare that to the total number of people in South Africa who are eligible to vote, the picture looks quite different. Only 36.4% of people eligible to vote, have voted for the ANC. Simply put, the idea that the majority of South Africans support the ANC is fallible. The majority of South Africans do not support the ANC electorally, yet the governing party enjoys a 62% piece of the electorate. This is problematic as governing parties that remain unchallenged at the polls will find it difficult not to abuse the power they wield.

Disillusionment with the ANC has been growing steadily, due to high levels of corruption, crime, poor levels of education and dismal service delivery. If people who tend to abstain from voting, especially the youth, mobilised and turned out in droves during elections to vote for the opposition (whichever party that may be), South Africa’s political climate would have looked very different.

The youth have the power to create a more politically competitive environment if they utilise their right to vote. Just like young Britons could possibly have changed the results of the Brexit vote, so to do young South Africans have the ability to hold political parties more accountable.

Gerbrandt van Heerden is a research analyst at the South African Institute of Race Relations. He received a Bachelor’s degree in Communication Studies from the North West University and went on to complete an Honours Degree in Political Sciences. Gerbrandt is set to finish his dissertation on South Africa’s political spectrum for his master’s degree by the end of 2016.

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