‘Born-Frees’ Shun S. African Vote as Apartheid Memories Fade

Mandela Memorial
People pay tribute to former South African President Nelson Mandela outside his home in Houghton, Johannesburg, on December 8, 2013, three days after his death. Photographer: Filippo Monteforte/AFP via Getty Images

When South Africans line up on May 7 to vote in their fifth election since the end of apartheid, 20-year-old Tshepo Mangwele and most of his contemporaries probably won’t be joining them.

“Standing in a line and placing my vote on a ballot will just be a waste of time,” Mangwele, a first-year chemical engineering student at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, said in an interview at the campus. “Most people who registered to vote are old. They feel like they owe certain parties something because of what they did in the past.”

Twenty years after the African National Congress took power, interest in South African politics is beginning to wane as memories of life under white minority rule recede and cynicism about corruption among political leaders increases. Disinterest is highest among the so-called “born-frees” who’ve lived their entire lives under ANC rule.

Independent Electoral Commission data show 34 percent of South Africans aged 18 and 19 registered to cast ballots while nationwide 80.8 percent of eligible voters did so, down from 84 percent five years ago. A survey published yesterday by the Pretoria-based Human Sciences Research Council showed 43 percent of 2,885 people aged 16 or older regard voting as meaningless because no politician can be trusted, up from 33 percent in 2008.

Excitement Wanes

“There has been a drop-off in excitement about political activity since the heady days of Nelson Mandela and the first five years of democracy,” Daniel Silke, director of Cape Town-based Political Futures Consultancy, said in an April 30 phone interview. “I don’t think the leadership of political parties across the board have really galvanized the youth in any meaningful way.”

Many voters feel the election is a foregone conclusion, with four recent polls showing the ANC winning more than 60 percent, almost three times more than its nearest rival, the Democratic Alliance.

While the ruling party has shored up its support by increasing access to welfare grants, housing, water and electricity, its failure to rein in a 24.1 percent unemployment rate and graft allegations threaten to erode its majority.

“I’m not sure whether I’ll vote or not,” Bongiwe Yende, 20, a second-year law student at the University of Johannesburg, said in an April 24 interview. Politicians “are not people I would look up to. I don’t know what to vote for.”

Wasteful Expenditure

In November, the Auditor-General’s office said an inspection of 450 state entities uncovered 30.8 billion rand ($2.9 billion) in irregular, unauthorized or wasteful expenditure in the year through March last year, up from 30 billion rand the year before.

Graft ombudsman Thuli Madonsela alleged in a March 19 report that President Jacob Zuma failed to safeguard public resources spent on a 215-million-rand renovation of his home at Nkandla in the eastern KwaZulu-Natal province and recommended he repay some of the money. He denies wrongdoing.

“South Africans across the board are wondering whether leading politicians are looking after their best interests and whether parties can be trusted to do the right things,” Ariane de Lannoy, a researcher at the University of Cape Town’s Children’s Institute, said by phone on April 30.

The ANC said it hasn’t detected any voter apathy.

Mandela’s Honor

“Young people in the context of an election are aged between 18 and 35,” Magasela Mzobe, national coordinator for the party’s youth wing, said by phone from the eastern town of Newcastle on April 24. “They dominate the voters’ roll and we are quite convinced they will come out in their numbers on May 7.”

Vuyile Mcinga, a 19-year-old resident of Langa township in Cape Town, said even though no one in his family had a job, he would vote for the ANC in honor of Mandela, the country’s first black president who died Dec. 5 at the age of 95.

“I don’t think it’s going to help me, but I’m just voting for fun,” he said in an April 30 interview.

Disenchantment among the youth will be an increasingly determinant factor in future elections as the proportion of the electorate who never experienced apartheid increases, said Anne Fruhauf, southern Africa analyst at New York-based risk evaluator Teneo Intelligence.

“Born-free urban voters will increasingly judge the ANC on its public-service record,” she said in an e-mailed response to questions on April 30. “The liberation gloss will probably wear off over the next 10 years or so.”

Mangwele, the engineering student, said it made little difference who runs the country because the politicians looked after their own interests.

“Ninety percent of the youth in my neighborhood probably won’t vote because nothing is being done for them,” he said in an April 24 interview. “We vote and the person we vote for will be eating our tax money anyway. So why vote?”

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