Youth participation in political processes in southern Africa
Co-hosted by EISA and SADC Youth Movement, with the financial support of OSISA
The experience today in many southern African societies is such that low levels of civil involvement and political apathy remain a dominant feature among young people. Anecdotal evidence seems to indicate that youth participation in political processes is declining. This is reflected in the low proportion of newly eligible voters who register and/or cast their ballot, and the widespread attitude among political elites that young people do not have sufficient political knowledge to be included in national planning and decision making processes. Although participation in elections is only one measure of civil participation, many young people in southern Africa do not know who their political representatives are, much less know about how to effectively influence politicians. Because many young people are less likely to vote, their interests are less likely to be represented. It would appear that opting out of the democratic process is an indication of the cynicism that young people feel about politics and people involved in politics.
One key factor in democratic politics is that citizens become accustomed to participating in political processes through political institutions, civil society, political parties, the act of voting, expression of opinion between and during elections, making regular contact with elected representatives, etc. The design of democracy by the elite is not enough if citizens only engage with the diverse processes of democracy periodically. Unless citizens, especially young people, have faith in democratic institutions and unless they engage in large numbers with teh various processes of self-governance, democracy might end up being no more than an empty shell, devoid of substance and merely providing a veneer of democracy for dictators and authoritarian regimes.
The vast majority of southern Africa's population is under the age of 30. Young people are accordingly the largest interest group in society: they are stakeholders in elections with few dividends from its proceeds. Young people are restless for opportunity and eager to claim their space, but the institutions of democracy have seemingly conspired against them.
Prior to the emergence of multiparty democracy in the region, the nationalist/democratic movements fighting for the liberation of citizens relied on the mobilisation of young people as a vital source of resistance against colonial or white minority regimes. Young people were used as the foot soldiers of the liberation forces and accorded a great degree of opportunity for participation in the periods leading to political liberalisation in the region. The pressure on institutions to admit and accept the participation of all citizens became a critical factor in legitimising democratic governance. However, the opportunities and mechanisms for effective participation remain out of reach for young people, as conscious, active citizens participanting in political processes.
It is a danger to democracy that young people are not considered, directly or indirectly, as anything other than a liability to democracy. Young people are, in many ways, under siege: marginalised by male adults and the elderly from decision making processes, faced with the prospect of mass death by the HIV/AIDS epidemic, denied employment and blamed for the increasing level of crime and violence. They are not in a position to make informed choices in the exercise of citizenship. They are at the mercy of political proprietors who take it upon themselves to interpret and decide what citizenship entails for young people. An added dilemma for democracy is that the majority of young people are women who live in rural areas and are subjected to all forms of gender inequality. The question then becomes, "How can young people make meaningful contributions to community life through their enhanced participation in politics?"
Over the last 12 months, in an attempt to address these issues, EISA developed and implemented a project aimed at encouraging youth participation in political processes. The project focused on countries having elections in 2004. Workshops were held in South Africa, Malawi and Botswana. While the emphasis differed according to the political context of each country, the common feature was the fact that the workshops were used as a platform to promote youth participation in the electoral process as well as interrogating the youth policies contained in political parties programmes and manifestos. Through this exercise the project hoped to stimulate youth interest and participation in the electoral process but also, in the long run, in broader issues of governance.
As the project evolved, EISA saw the need to starting involving youth in EISA's broader activities more systematically; hence the involvement of young people in EISA's regional election observer missions in selected countries in 2004. As the next step in the implementation of the project, EISA intends to host a two-day regional conference aimed at further interrogation of the causes of youth apathy in the region. The meeting will bring together representatives of youth organisations of all SADC countries to share their reflections on these factors as well as sound, realistic and pragmatic strategies to promote youth participation. The conference will start with a plenary session where a key note speaker will provide a general background on youth participation in the SADC region. This session will be followed by country presentations on the status of youth participation: challenges and opportunities of all the SADC countries. The recurrent themes will be clustered together into four broad issues to be discussed in break away groups. Each group will be requested to produce a set of recommendations as to how to enhance youth participation in politics in the region.