`Post-struggle generation'


Apathy: In South Africa, many young people don't share their parents' zeal for the hard-won democratic process and see no value in voting.

April 15, 2004|By John Murphy | John Murphy,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

SOWETO, South Africa - In Mosa Makhubedu's home, voting is not just a right or a privilege, it's an emotional event.

His 72-year-old mother, Rose, still vividly recalls South Africa's first democratic elections in 1994 as a day she had waited for from the moment she was born. His sister, Enisa, considers casting her ballot as an almost religious act, a way of honoring all the black South Africans who perished in the struggle against apartheid. "They died for this day," she says.

But yesterday, as an estimated 20 million South Africans headed to the polls in the country's third general election, Makhubedu, 25, had this to say: Who cares?

"I will not benefit from voting," says Makhubedu, who has been unemployed since graduating from high school in 2000. "If I can be economically empowered, I would want to vote. Suffering like this, I see no reason."

So like the majority of young South Africans this election, Makhubedu stayed away from the polls.

In a country with one of the most politically involved populations in the world - about 75 percent of the country's eligible voters registered for yesterday's election - South African young people appear to be following the voting patterns of Americans and Europeans. Fewer than half of South Africans age 18 to 25 even bothered to register to vote, according to South Africa's Independent Electoral Commission.

Students led fight

A generation ago, high school and college students led the fight against white minority rule, dropping out of school, taking to the streets in protest and, in some cases, sacrificing their lives for the goal of creating a multiracial democracy.

But for much of the generation who followed them - sometimes dubbed the "born frees" - apartheid is something that they read about in history books, politics is seen as a way to get rich, and voting is considered a waste of time.

"This is the post-struggle generation," says Roger Southhall, a researcher at the Human Sciences Research Council in Pretoria. "These kids didn't really experience apartheid. I don't think they ever experienced the oppression their parents did."

According to a recent marketing survey of South African youth conducted by the University of Cape Town, two-thirds of 18- to 24-year-olds feel that politics is not important to them, 98 percent believe that government officials are dishonest and a quarter believe that life has improved for them during the past 10 years. Unlike their parents' generation, most say they are colorblind, viewing everyone as equal in the new South Africa.

"The world is different now," says Judith February, an analyst for the Institute for Democracy in South Africa. "There is not the need to be pounding the streets for rights. There are competing interests for youth."

Those interests involve music, cars, cell phones, laptop computers, movies, television and dozens of other distractions of a globalized world.

But politics is more or less a bore.

Which, in a way, was not so far from the truth in yesterday's election. There is little suspense surrounding the outcome. Although official election results are not expected until today, several recent polls indicated that the ruling African National Congress led by President Thabo Mbeki would win overwhelmingly, with as much as 70 percent of the vote.

Despite fears of violence in KwaZulu-Natal Province where the ANC and the Zulu-supported Inkatha Freedom Party are locked in a battle for political control of the province, police reported no major problems.

In part, the decline in voter participation among youth is a reflection of a national trend that cuts across all age groups. In 1994, 85 percent of the voting-age population turned out for the election. In 1999, turnout dropped to 64 percent, and it was expected to be lower for yesterday's election.

Voter apathy, however, remains highest among the youth. For young middle class South Africans, voting is not seen as an important part of their life. Getting a good education, finding a high paying job and then enjoying all the benefits of affluence are the overriding goals, political analysts say. Not voting.

"There are better things for them to do," February says.

But among poor South Africans, there is a deep disillusionment with politics. The political process is not working for them, February says.

"For the poor youth growing up in the country with 40 percent unemployment, there is little prospect of a job, and little chance, they believe, that voting is going to change that prospect," February says.

Makhubedu falls squarely into this latter category. Like many young people in Soweto, a sprawling township of 1.5 million people 10 miles southwest of Johannesburg, he has little hope of finding a job. After graduating from high school in 2000, Makhubedu enrolled in a computer course, believing it would be his ticket to a good job. His applications were rejected.

Waiting for work

"Since then, I've just been sitting," he says.

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