By Waseem Carrim
Yes, We Can was the signature Barack Obama and Democrat Party campaign that in 2008 propelled the young Chicago Senator to the presidency of the US.
Analysts who reviewed the triumph pinpointed Obama’s unique ability to win the youth vote as critical to his election victories both in 2008 and 2012.
UK Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn was perceived as one of the weakest leaders of the party in modern-day history.
Seemingly abandoned by many of his own party members in the leadership, the Labour Party was expected to overwhelmingly lose the 2017 snap election in the UK, called mainly by the Tories to strengthen their electoral hand and to deliver a clean Brexit informed by the referendum.
Fast forward and the Tories lost their electoral and parliamentary majority mainly due to the surge in support for the Labour Party and once again in the analysis the pinpoint was the youth vote.
In both cases, analysts further reflected that it was an ability to consolidate the youth vote – that is capitalise on those young people who vote rather than target youth as an entire sector.
The ability of the youth vote to have a major influence in an election should never be underestimated. This is especially true in South Africa where we have a majority youth population.
Data published by the Electoral Commission of South Africa indicates that only 16% of 18-19-year olds are registered to vote on the voters roll, which has declined from 34% in 2016.
Further key data indicates that 71% of young people who registered to vote in 2016 cast their ballots, which supports the argument that targeting the youth vote is key and that the ability to consolidate this vote can swing an election.
Getting young people to believe in the democratic process and curbing voter apathy can be challenging. More and more I see not only citizens but also commentators reflect on success stories such as China and Rwanda to indicate that democracy may not be all its painted out to be and that democracy in some cases impedes development.
I would argue that the sample of autocracies which succeed is relatively low in comparison to those that fail and that our democracy remains a tool with which to drive success – under certain conditions.
Part of our challenge is encouraging young people to turn out in their numbers and vote to exercise their democratic right. And then what? It must be about more than that.
Being part of a democracy means building an active citizenry.
Therefore, when we educate young people about voting, we equally need to educate them on being active citizens. Once you have voted, you have a role in building the South Africa that you want to live in, whether you are a politician or not.
Becoming involved in your community, joining an NGO, joining the transformation committee at work, coaching sport at your Alma Mater after school, holding your local councillor to account – these are all examples of being an active citizen.
Democracy also flourishes when the ordinary people who live in it make it a reality.
A vote is simply the start of building something extraordinary.
In a country that suffers the worst youth unemployment rate in the world, a youth vote in the upcoming election means more to young people than ever before.
It was young people who started the Arab Spring that brought down numerous governments across North Africa and the Middle East.
We would do well to recognise what an important role they will play in five months, when we go to the polls.
Carrim is the chief executive of the National Youth Development Agency.