This case deals with the role of Activate! Change drivers organisation in increasing youth participation in political activities, such as voting in South Africa. The organisation initiated the WeAreVoting campaign with the aim to educate and empower young people about the importance of participating in democratic processes and voting during elections to create the change they want to see.
Problems and Purpose
It is usually accepted that the youth are apathetic towards political activities and that is evident in low voter turnout during elections. This is not unique to South Africa but also to other Western democracies (Dalton 2008). Recent studies demonstrate that there has been a considerable increase in the number of young citizens who have actively and intentionally removed themselves from political activities and election processes in nations such as the United States (US) and the United Kingdom (UK) since the late 1990s (Malali 2016). In the past the youth of South Africa played an important role in the process of transformation to democratic in the process of transformation to democracy and left a legacy of youth involvement, particularly the youth of 1976 who acted against what they believed to be unfair treatment by the government of the time (being taught in Afrikaans).
Things have changed and young people are showing less interest in the politics of the country and are not voting as much as other populations in both national and local government elections. According to Schulz-Herzenberg (2019), the youth eligible to vote (between age 18-34 years), make up a third (about 33%) of the South African electorate (people entitled or eligible to vote). However, the number of youth voters has significantly decreased over the years. This became more apparent in the 2019 national government elections. According to Schulz-Herzenberg (2022:18) "Of 11.7 million young adult citizens only 5.6 million registered in the 18–29 age group”. In other words, less than half (48.6%) were entitled to vote in 2019. This is a substantial decrease from the previous 2014 elections when well over half (58%) of all 18–29-year-olds were registered to vote.”.
The low voter registration is a problem because it also affects voter turnout. Schulz-Herzenberg (2021), states that voter turnover is a "crucial barometer of the vitality and health of a democracy". This means that there more people go out to vote, the more the country is seen as healthy because more people are actively choosing which political party should govern the country. The analysis by Schulz-Herzenberg further showed that voter turnout was even less. It shows that of the 18-19 years age group, only 15% of the total population group voted and 30% of the 20-29 years age group voted. There are significantly fewer young people who vote compared to the number of youth eligible to vote than other age groups. This is bad for South Africa's democracy, which requires active participation in government decision-making.
Table 1: Age Profile of Voters in 2019
VAP 2018 Population Estimates
Registered Voters as a % of the Population
1 843 831
5 299 144
9 871 020
6 685 439
8 990 803
5 480 336
6 081 394
4 228 558
4 361 794
2 737 553
2 818 624
1 336 946
1 355 150
Source 1: Schulz-Herzenberg (2020)
In addition, in the 2021 Local Government Elections (LGE), youth had the largest share of people who did not vote. A survey of people eligible to vote in five metropolitan municipalities, namely, eThekwini, the City of Cape Town, the City of Johannesburg, the City of Tshwane, and Nelson Mandela Bay shows that almost half of the youth did not vote (Runciman, Bekker & Mbeche, 2021). The results of the survey show that 46% of the youth did not vote (Runciman, et al., 2021). This is further evidence of youth not voting in South Africa.
Table 2: Profile of those who abstained from the 2021 Local Government Elections
Source 2: Runciman, Bekker & Mbeche (2021) data, author’s graph
Youth not voting is a problem since South Africa’s population is considered to be youthful and comprises a significantly large proportion of the voting population. As mentioned previously, voter turnover is a measure of the health and vitality of a country's democracy (Schulz-Herzenberg, 2021). With a significant share of the youth not voting, coupled with the fact that they account for the largest population group, the country's democracy may be seen as less healthy and vibrant. Enaifoghe and Dlamini (2021:208) claim that the lack of youth participation stems from the state's incapability to construct or develop effective platforms that can encourage young people in political processes. The youth feel excluded from political processes to express their grievances.
The decrease in youth participation in elections has resulted in the establishment of various organisations which aim to improve youth participation. One of those organisations is Activate! Change Drivers organisation. The purpose of Activate! Change Drivers (ACD) is to encourage the youth to play an active role in the electoral process, in other words, encourage them to vote.
Background History and Context
Youth participation and involvement in South Africa was key in the struggle against apartheid by weakening the system and the pursuit of social and political reform from 1948 to 1994 (Fakir, Bhengu & Larsen, 2009:107). Political participation was a norm and people abstaining from politics was considered a rare occurrence. The anti-apartheid movement was led by the 1994 youth, and they had a significant positive democratic impact on South Africa today.
Throughout the apartheid era, young activists, and organisations such as the African National Congress Youth League (ANCYL) and the Pan Africanist Congress of Azalea (PAC) played an important role in organising protests, boycotts, and acts of civil disobedience (Oyedemi, 2006:14). They utilised their voices and activities to oppose the apartheid government's discriminatory laws and practices and weaken the system. The organisations they formed provided leadership, ideological guidance, and an environment for young people to air their problems (Hofmeyr, 2004: 51). The active involvement of the youth, combined with the support of other anti-apartheid activists and the international community, put enormous pressure on the apartheid government to end apartheid.
When South Africa had its first democratic elections in 1994, marking the end of apartheid and the beginning of a new era for the country. Voter turnout was relatively high, and young South Africans were particularly eager to participate in the historic election. According to Mthunzi (2023), South Africa had 22.7 million eligible voters in 1994 and 19.7 million people voted in the general election. The voter turnout was 86.9%. Many people, including young people who had been denied the right to vote as a result of apartheid were motivated to use their right to vote for the first time and choose their democratic government.
Throughout the six terms of democracy (1994-1999, 2000-2004, 2005-2009,2010-2014,2015-2019, and the current term 2020-2024), voter turnout has been unstable and declined drastically. Between the 1999 election and the 2019 election, the number of individuals eligible to vote increased to 35.8 million, but fewer of those eligible voters voted. Many do not see the need to register to vote. The voter registration turnout in 2019 was 65.9%, a 21% decrease from 1994 (Mthunzi, 2023). The high level of political participation that was present in 1994, has seemingly disappeared into thin air (Hermanus, 2002:9).
Concerns have been voiced regarding youth's low levels of political participation, particularly about low electoral turnout and participation in political activities. As a result, young people have been characterised as ignorant, apathetic, selfish, alienated, disillusioned, and disinterested in political activities (Hermanus, 2022:1). Other researchers feel that the absence of youth participation is related to larger socioeconomic causes that influence their involvement in politics. Furthermore, researchers contend that youth are not apathetic. Instead, they have grown disillusioned with formal democratic institutions that have failed to interact with them and fix their socioeconomic difficulties (Tracey, 2012:3). This is not good for the country's democracy and the youth themselves who are mostly affected by the challenges facing this country such as unemployment, crime, access to quality education, access to healthcare, etc.
Organizing, Supporting, and Funding Entities
Several organisations and initiatives have been formed to address the lack of youth voter participation and are dedicated to encouraging youth participation in the electoral process. The civil society organisation: Activate! Change Drivers organisation is one of them. Activate is an independent non-profit organisation that was established in 2012 and in 2022 it celebrated 10 years of existence. Its goal is to empower ordinary citizens and civil society (Activate leadership). The organisation focuses on promoting youth active participation in South Africa’s political processes by providing ways in which they can encourage the young to participate in political processes, such as voting through civic education. The organisation runs in all the country’s nine provinces and currently has more than 4300 'Activators' young people that are trained through leadership programs to go out in their communities, including rural areas and encourage other young people to be active citizens (Activate Leadership).
Activate Change Drives' mission is to encourage young people to be innovative active citizens and provide positive change (IOL, 2020). According to the Activate Theory of Change, the organisation states that "if young people are given a provocative platform to meet, connect, and be inspired to actively contribute to the common good, they can be innovative and active citizens who can drive positive social, economic, and political change for South Africa and the global good" (Activate leadership). The organisation therefore offers courses that give young people the opportunity to be active in change in their communities and empower them. The organisation believes there is voter apathy among the youth in South Africa because young people are not given the leadership tools in order to develop their leadership qualities. Hence, young people show more interest in protesting than going to vote. Activation! hosts drives and youth hubs to educate young people about the importance of participating in democracy so that they can make change.
The organisation’s work is with its objectives, vision and mission.
- Objective: equip young people of South Africa to be innovative active citizens, influencing and provoking positive change for the global good.
- Vision: a network of young leaders with the capacity to drive change for the public good across South Africa.
- Mission: to build the capacity of Activators to become leaders for public innovation and catalyse connection points giving rise and support to growing the influence of a network of change drivers as a new political, social and economic force.
In order to build and strengthen communities, the Active (ACD) organisation is supported by other organisations that share a common vision. These stakeholders share a vision of seeing young South Africans become more knowledgeable about civic and policy issues. The organisation is funded by Kreditanstalt für Wiederaufbau (KfW), The DG Murray Trust (DGMT) and supported by Education, Training, and Development Practices Sector Education and Training Authority (ETDP SETA).
KfW Developmental Bank: is one of the leading promotional banks created by the German government. The bank supports developing programmes in developing countries by funding them (KFW). KfW Development Bank’s mission is to help countries overcome the development challenges that still persist, in the area of good governance, prevention of violence and poverty, health and education (Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development).
DGMT: is a strategic investor that partners with organisations that address one or more of their goals to escape inequality. The organisation advocates for young people to be equipped with skills, to be 'strong' and fulfill their potential and that is why they have partnered with Activation. They want to see more young people build on knowledge and skills in order to participate in a thriving society without the trap of inequality. DGMT commits to the ideals of collaboration, open communication, and transformation.
ETDP SETA: SETA's principal mandate is to help with skill development and training in the South African education, training, and development sector. This sector includes institutions, such as schools, colleges, training providers, and skill development organisations. In the partnership with Activation, they collaborated with young people about the importance of voting, the electoral system and their civic responsibilities.
Participant Recruitment and Selection
Over the past ten years of its existence, Activate! Change Drivers (ACD) has provided over 4500 young people between the ages of 18-34 from different parts of the country with tools to create spaces for youth leaders to connect, share ideas, and be empowered to become active change drivers in their communities (Activate leadership). In order to be a leader (activator) applications are submitted online then the leaders of the organisation select who they see fit for the role. The organisation takes the role of being an activator very seriously and not everyone can be given the title. The selected representatives of the organisation, also known as ‘activators’ then go through an extensive training program to be educated about ways in which they can empower young people with critical knowledge and effectively by hosting youth hubs in their communities. The youth clubs are collaborations and supported by various public and private entities, like the ones listed above (Mabote 2023). The project Civic education campaign with the hashtag WeAreVoting is also endorsed by The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) of South Africa.
Learning engagements take place in these youth hubs. Learning engagements are educational and practical in nature, with sessions led by professionals in community development projects, public innovation, and youth development. Civic education is at the heart of the programme. These hubs are hosted to strengthen youth leadership in order for young people to know that they are needed to influence change in society and to make them understand that they can be the change. The youth hubs created by Activation give young people the opportunity to connect and share knowledge and how to navigate the socio-political landscape of local government by delivering civic education as well as leadership training. The organisation reaches out to young people to encourage and empower them to be active citizens and use their rights to make and be the difference they would like to see in South Africa.
Another essential part of Activate! is equipping young people with the knowledge and tools they need to effect change. From leadership development to project management, they provide a wide range of training choices to assist them in gaining the skills they need to make a difference.
Figure 1.1: A picture of Activators in one of the youth hubs hosted during the year
Methods and Tools Used
The Activate organization has identified three effective methods to increase youth engagement and voting across all nine provinces in South Africa. The primary approach that the organization endorses the most is civic education, followed by social mobilization and digital activism to connect with young people.
- Civic education
Civic education prepares people to be informed and active citizens. According to Chitondo (2022:49), it is the study of citizens' rights and responsibilities or obligations. Citizens must be knowledgeable, effective, and accountable for democracy to function properly. As a result, civic education is a vital part of purposeful democracy because it lays the foundation for people to understand their rights, responsibilities, and how democratic institutions work. According to Pillay (2023), civic education empowers citizens to be more than passive instruments of the state by providing them with information that allows them to participate in democratic processes.
The civic education programme was created by Activate in response to the rising frequency of violent protests in South Africa in recent years, which were frequently led by young people. In South Africa during protests schools are set on fire, clinics are vandalised, and community infrastructure is destroyed. The organisation believes that is not the answer if young people want this country to be better. Instead, the organisation encourages young people to advocate for change by participating in democratic processes by being active citizens if they want to see change. Therefore, the Activate Change Drivers (ADC) initiative is founded on the pillars of Civic education to encourage youth participation.
Activate Change Drivers launched a free Civic Education for Youth toolbox for Youth Month in 2022. The toolkit aims to assist South Africa in developing an alternative narrative by providing grassroots support for young people in their communities to interact with local government. Their civic Education Toolkit aims to empower young people in particular and communities in general by providing tools and knowledge on local government, democracy, and active citizenship, as well as engagement techniques, to incorporate democratic practices into society and foster community-based active citizenship. The toolkit also intends to encourage collective accountability and the creation of enabling conditions for young people to question, interrogate, and hold political leaders accountable for meaningful change and social transformation using legitimate, nonviolent, and democratic means.
Figure 1.3: Image of Activate civic education toolkit booklet·
- Social mobilization
According to Dunu and Uzochukwo (2015), social mobilisation is "the process of dialogue, negotiation, and consensus building for action by people, communities, and organisations to identify, address, and solve a problem. It is also described as a "movement to engage people's participation in achieving a specific development goal through self-reliant efforts" (Dunu and Uzochukwo, 2015). The most relevant form of this can be seen this year (June 2023) when the organisation hosted workshops in the form of Youth hubs, and information sessions to enlighten young people about the value of voting, the election process, and the influence of their votes. The public activations and volunteer to teach ordinary people about civic education was hosted in Kagiso, Johannesburg, Gauteng 3rd of June 2023, in Kwazulu Natal, Ntuzuma on the 16th of June and lastly on Monday, 29 June in Limpopo, Lenyenyemeant (Daily Maverick, 2023).
The organisation targets or mobilises community spaces where they can get “authentic stories” that are not documented in media as to why young people show apathy in democratic processes. They do this because they do not want young people to only depend on their keyboards when activism is concerned but they should go out and unite to make a difference, “Our bodies on the road and in visibility as a bridge for citizens makes a difference” says Siphelele Chirwa ACTIVATE! Change Drivers CEO (Active leadership organisation).
- Digital Activism
Digital activism is a politically driven online movement that relies on the internet Chibita (2016). It tries to achieve specific objectives and is geared toward government officials who impose controls on the public (Chibita, 2016). Digital activism is also defined as the use of cell phones in social and political change initiatives that are either internet-based or internet-enhanced (Chibita, 2016). Twitter, Facebook and Instagram are all effective venues for digital activism. These platforms are used by activists to spread information, mobilise followers, and magnify their messages. Hashtags are useful for organising discussions around certain subjects.
Activate! Change Drivers currently has 12,700 followers on Twitter, 14,000 on Facebook and 4,000 on Instagram. They are most active on Facebook and Twitter. They mainly use these social media platforms to spread the message about their campaigns and initiatives. Leading to the 2024 elections, on the 3rd of June 2023 the organisation introduced the #WeAreVoting campaign on all their social media platforms, specifically targeting the youth that has been showing a lack of interest in voting. The campaign gained attraction from some followers, on Instagram more than 500 followers out of its 4000 followers posted pictures and used the hashtag again. This encouraged a politically driven online movement because followers of the people that used the hashtag are likely to look up the work of the organisation and also join the movement.
Figure 1.4:Images of the active pages of the organisation
What Went On: Process, Interaction, and Participation
In June 2023, ACTIVATE! Change Drivers celebrated Youth Month with the #WeAreVoting campaign. The campaign was hosted in three provinces, Johannesburg, Kwa-Zulu Natal and Limpopo and was attended by young people in those areas. The goal of the campaign is to promote participation among young people and create an awareness of civic responsibility and encourage young people to take action through a combination of hands-on activities, interactive meetings, and engaging discussions. The slogan of the campaign is “Leave no one behind”, the organisation came up with this slogan with the hopes of encouraging young people to vote in the upcoming 2024 general election (Legodi 2023). The emphasis on leaving no one behind is targeting the young that has shown a lack of interest in voting in the past years. The campaign was mainly targeted at marginalised communities where there is limited access to civil education. By focusing on these communities, organisations can ensure that everyone, regardless of their background has access to civic education and an equal opportunity to voice their concerns and work towards social change. Different speakers who are knowledgeable about civic education were invited by Activate to the communities to educate young people about the importance of their vote and how much change it can make. Everyone that attended the event was given a #WeAreVoting t-shirt which was the hashtag used to push the event and campaign on social media.
Figure 1.5: Image of Activate in #WeAreVoting campaign in Gauteng.
Influence, Outcomes, and Effects
Activate Change Drivers organization has made a significant impact on civic education by leading initiatives that empower individuals to actively engage in their communities and participate in democratic processes. Through these innovative programs, youth hubs, and outreach campaigns, this organization has played a key role in enhancing public awareness about civic rights, responsibilities, and social issues. By providing accessible and inclusive platforms for dialogue in their youth hubs, they have potentially fostered a sense of unity among diverse groups. Their focus on active citizenship has the potential to inspire numerous individuals, particularly young people to advocate for change, and go to vote.
Unfortunately, this case study is limited in this sense. The campaign was launched this year, but there is no evidence of the outcome or effects of the event. However, with all the information mentioned above the #WeAreVoting campaign might have an influence on the young people that attended it and influence their attitudes towards voting leading to the upcoming 2024 elections. The campaign targeted those in marginalised groups, this helped to ensure that underprivileged people that attended the event had access to information and are equipped to make well-informed decisions in civic processes. Heightened civic awareness has the potential to increase voter participation.
Analysis and Lessons Learned
This case demonstrates an innovative strategy for participatory democracy by involving populations that are seemingly less interested in political processes. Young people in South Africa have moved away from active citizenship and no longer see the necessity to vote. The organisation’s focus demonstrates that voter involvement is critical for a democracy to function. Given that youth comprise the majority of the population, their engagement is crucial for a healthy democracy (their participation in choosing who governs the country). To ensure that they vote, individuals must first learn their rights and obligations as citizens. The organisation has taken the responsibility of teaching and encouraging the youth to be involved in the decision of who governs the country, through voting. This is important for a democratic country such as South Africa where everyone should be voting.
It is good that the organsiation focuses on disadvantaged communities because they have limited access to information. However, an approach that targets the youth regardless of their community would be more desirable. The organisation is limited and only targets young people in marginalised groups (townships and rural areas). Other communities are excluded based on the assumption that they have access to information. However, access to information does not guarantee knowledge but education does, there are people with unlimited access to information but may not understand their rights and responsibilities as citizens in choosing to govern the country.
A key lesson learned from this case is that organisations need more than one activity to focus on, especially if they want to attract young people. It is almost difficult to keep the youth engaged with one activity. Activate change drivers understand this, they have other activities to keep the youth involved even though their core function is to get young people to participate and have a voice in democratic processes and civil education. This organisation has other activities that keep people involved not only in activities that promote voting but in the organisation as a whole as well as in improving themselves and their communities. Such activities include youth hubs and campaigns that they introduce and host throughout the year.
The organisation is very active on social media, they post regularly on their Twitter, Facebook and Instagram pages. On the other hand, there is seemingly no engagement from the youth. There is a very low number of comments, likes and shares on their posts despite the high number of followers they have on their social media platforms. This is a problem because seemingly they are not reaching their intended audience through social media, which is primarily the youth.
Active leadership organisation.
Available from: https://activateleadership.co.za/publication/28638/
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Link to Youtube video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HqvW023OG00Notes