The key role of citizens in a democracy is to participate in public life. They have an obligation to become informed about public issues, to watch carefully how their political leaders and representatives use their powers, and to express their own opinions and interests.
Voting and Democracy
Democracy involves two key dimensions – that of contestation and participation. Contestation (or competition) happens when there is competitiveness among parties with a field of potential winners. Participation is achieved through
- High voter turnout
- Free and fair elections
- Full enfranchisement
Clearly then, voting and democracy go hand in hand. In South Africa’s democratic structure, voting is the foundational concept and one of our most fundamental rights. The right to vote and its significance go to the heart of our constitutional democracy. This much is evident from section 1(d) of the Constitution where “universal adult suffrage, a national common voters roll, regular elections and a multi-party system of democratic government, to ensure accountability, responsiveness and openness” are enshrined as some of the foundational values.
A challenge we face is that in the previous national elections in 2014, there were roughly 10.9 million eligible voters between 18 and 29 years in South Africa – 34% of the voting age population. Only 6.4 million of these were registered – 20% of all voters or 25% of registered voters. At the time of the 2014 election, many eligible young voters between 18 and 29 years remained unregistered, which meant a lower voter turnout.
A global perspective
Fluctuating levels of youth participation are a concern in many countries. A review of the literature on youth voting behaviour and democratic participation illustrates similar patterns in countries such as Britain, Canada and the US, among others:
- In Britain, youth participation (18 – 24 years) has seen a steady decline since the 1997 British general elections, from 57% in 1997 to 39% in 2001 and 37% in 2005
- In Canada, voter turnout has fluctuated from 37% in 2004 up to 44% in 2006, 37% in 2008 and 39 % in 2011.
- In the USA youth participation has dropped on average, from 51% in 1964 to 38% in 2012, with increases in 2004 and 2008.
It is not so much that young people are apathetic, but that democratic institutions have failed to engage them. A new political generation are moving away from conventional politics, opting instead for new forms of participation, such as community work, signing petitions and taking part in various forms of protest action.
Critical Thinking Seminar