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Page last updated at 23:36 GMT, Thursday, 16 April 2009 00:36 UK

Are young South Africans too cynical?

By Andrew Walker
BBC News, South Africa

Maringa Vhutshilo [centre]
Politics doesn't feature heavily in the life of Maringa (c)

Maringa Vhutshilo, a student at South Africa's Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg yawns as he contemplates next week's election.

"No I won't be voting this time," he says.

"I never got registered, you see," he adds, swigging from a soda can and adjusting the baseball cap on his head.

"What was I doing instead? Let's see - sleeping?"

In 1994, virtually the whole country came out and queued to cast their votes as South Africa's black majority were given the vote for the first time.

But 15 years and three elections later, the euphoria has worn off, perhaps understandably.

The newest generation of voters in this year's election were three or four years old when apartheid ended - they only know about the liberation struggle through their parents and teachers.

Queues for voting in 1994
Millions of people queued for hours in order to vote in 1994

But they do have a bigger choice of people to vote for, with the newly founded opposition party, the Congress of the People (Cope).

Although students are only a small section of the young people eligible to vote, the BBC went to a university to find out attitudes how attitudes to politics have changed.

Increasing negatives

Mfiso Zwane, 19, was studying with friends at a cafe on campus.

He comes from a township west of Johannesburg, which he describes as "an unfortunate community."

"Quite frankly I'm not going to be voting," he says.

Mfiso Zwane, Bheki Zwane and Nkululeko Mathelula
Mfiso Zwane and (l) Bheki Zwane (c) are more concerned with making money

"The only thing I've seen in the years since the first elections is all the increasing rate of crimes, all the negative aspects of the country."

His parents, ANC supporters in past elections, have also tired of the political scene.

"They see it in the price of bread. Last year it was six rand, now it is eight."

His friend Bheki Zwane, also 19 but no relation, says he will be voting, but right now cannot see who for.

"The ruling party is just messing up, opposition parties aren't promising anything relevant. Its just becoming a dirty game. It's a grim picture."

"Cope is the angry members from the ANC, it's not a matter of policy, but a matter of how much money they can make."

Mfiso and Bheki are both studying maths at Wits.

They want to go on to use their maths skills in the financial world to make money for them and their families, and don't see that politics is important in that.

No connection

Other first-time voters said they would vote, but they did not feel any particular connection to a political party.

Lesley Langton, Cynthia Pottier and Carla Richards
Lesley Langton (l) says she cannot vote for the ANC

Lesley Langton, 19, said she comes from a very political family.

"My grandfather always taught me that you have to vote as your civic duty, and if you don't vote, you can't complain."

"But they won't be voting ANC this year - they feel like traitors - but they won't and I can't, not for Zuma."

She says many ANC supporters she knows have turned away from the party because of accusations made against ANC president Jacob Zuma of corruption and rape, all of which have been dismissed.

She says she doesn't believe in the new party Cope.

Who will she vote for?

"The DA?" she says uncertainly, talking about the opposition Democratic Alliance led by Helen Zille.

"I don't know, I think."

Voters registered

Nevertheless, voter registration of young people is up.

Nearly 2.5 million people between 18 and 30 registered to vote for the first time in this election, according to the Independent Election Commission.

Sheila Meintjes
From conversation with my 'youth' they don't even want to know
Sheila Meintjes
Witwatersrand University

There are over 23 million people registered to vote in the whole of South Africa, more than ever before.

But Bob Mattes, of the University of Cape Town, says that much of this new registration could be down to the emergence of Cope as a second choice.

"But since they launched it's possible that people have had a second thought about voting for them," he said.

He says the attitudes of a few students do not indicate a wider crisis among young voters, and their attitudes are not surprising considering voter turnout has been steadily declining since 1994.

Students are a very small sample of the country's youth, he says, and their attitudes could change in a few years as political questions become more pressing on their interests.

"There is a romantic vision that the youth will be a revolutionary cohort who will take the polity forward, but there is no reason why this should be so," he says.

The reality is turnout has dropped to around 50% - the levels seen in American elections.

More emphasis should be put on teaching children about democracy in schools, he says.

'Strong consumerism'

There hasn't been enough research done on first-time voters, according to Sheila Meintjes, head of political science at Wits.

"From conversation with my 'youth', and I come in contact with a lot of youth around here, they don't even want to know," she says.

"The youth are certainly concerned about politics, but they feel it's not something they can engage in, or that it can fulfil their aspirations."

"There is a very strong consumerism in the young generation, about generating their own personal wealth, and enjoying the moment."

The future has not become an issue for them unlike generations before them, she says.

So what are young people in South Africa interested in?

Maringa looks puzzled, as if it's a stupid question.

"Our lives? Parties, you know..."



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