By Dailymaverick.co.za (Sharon Wood)

Some 8m youth voters are either unregistered or registered, but unlikely to vote and 700,000 voters are undecided, given their economic concerns. Corruption and expectations that the economy will not improve post-election are keeping the youth on the fence, while undecided voters cite unemployment as their biggest concern.

Political parties and South Africa have a major challenge as voters gear themselves up to go — or not to go — to the polls on Wednesday 8 May. It’s the perception that none of the political parties is seen be able to solve the most pressing issue voters perceive to be facing the country: unemployment.

That’s according to the latest Citizen Surveys analysis, in April 2019. The South African Citizens Survey took stock of voter sentiment and views after registration closed in April. It’s also in contrast to what parties have been saying in the lead-up to the election. Citizen Surveys’ strategic research director, Reza Omar, says “the political parties’ electoral messages have not always aligned with their political party positioning”.

It is this failure to win the hearts and minds of some eight million youth voters that could put the country at grave risk and put paid to hopes that post-elections some form of Ramaphoria could return as President Cyril Ramaphosa hits the road to fix the economy.

Citizen Surveys delved into youth voter statistics for Business Maverick and found that some 6.1 million of 11.7 million youth voters in South Africa aged between 18 and 29 are not registered. That’s a huge increase of 1.6 million on the 4.5 million voters who were not expected to register, according to earlier surveys.

Add to that the 1.7 million (or 31%) youth voters registered, but unlikely to turn up at the polls, and there could well be a hefty proportion of young voters, the citizens of the future, opting out of the electoral system on Wednesday. That is significant in an election where, as Omar points out, “the choices made by those who have yet to make up their minds [have] the potential to have a large impact on the years to come”.

The underlying concerns of the registered and unmotivated youth voters, of which 63% are unemployed, give some insight into why they are so unimpressed with the political parties that they do not want to vote. The survey found 64% of them believe the economy will not improve over the next 12 months and 87% believe that corruption is increasing.

It’s not just the youth voters who could have a determining influence on the economic climate post elections.

“The key to the electoral outcomes lies in the decision taken by every undecided voter,” says Omar. “The 3% (just under 700,000 people) truly undecided voters remain key to these elections. They are weighing up and considering their options before casting their ballots on 8 May, rather than opting to withdraw completely. How they choose to vote can influence the outcome of this year’s elections.”

She says another factor that could influence who the “undecideds” opt to vote for would be how the parties have managed to position themselves in relation to solving some of the country’s biggest problems, often done through their manifestos and election campaign messaging.

“Often, those voters who make up their minds at the last minute, look to parties that they believe can help solve the issues that most directly impact upon their lives,” adds Omar.

As voters head for the polls, it doesn’t look at all promising. The SA Citizens Survey shows optimism about the future of the economy stands at a miserable 47% compared with 61% when Ramaphosa became president at the beginning of 2018. The overall trend over the past two years shows a decline in perceptions of the economy improving.

According to the 2019 first quarter (January to March) survey results, just more than one in five citizens (21%) felt the economy had improved over the past 12 months.

The most pressing problems cited by voters as requiring proactive attention, in order of importance, were unemployment, crime, poverty and destitution, corruption, delivery of basic services and education.

The survey found 27.5 million people, almost three-quarters of South Africans, felt unemployment remained stubbornly high and considered it to be the biggest problem facing the country. This was followed by crime (34%), poverty/destitution (25%) and corruption (23%). Omar says that the delivery of basic services (housing, water supply, roads, electricity) and education continue to be burning issues, “as is evident by the increasing footprint of service delivery protests around the country”.

This is not a pretty picture for a post-election South Africa. Luckily for the ANC, it is all the leading political parties, including the EFF and DA, which are perceived not to be taking unemployment seriously.

It will come down to the ruling party, and thus the government, putting its money where its mouth is to seriously tackle what voters consider to be the number one economic problem in South Africa. Otherwise, the economy stands to be mired in its sub-2% growth zone for many years to come.

By the time the next elections come around, millions more voters could opt out of the electoral system. DM

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