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South Africa elections Monday, 31 May, 1999, 12:40 GMT 13:40 UK
Young turn their back on politics
Nelson Mandela campaigning for the election
Wooing the faithful: but South Africa's young are umimpressed
By Itumeleng Mahabane

The most important section of the electorate in South Africa's elections, the youth, has been by and large ignored.

South African Elections
Some of them have reacted accordingly. So poor was the registration turn-out among people below the age of 26 that South Africa's Independent Electoral Commission was forced to go on an additional registration push, concentrating on young voters.

The fact is that most young people are uninterested in voting. They are either disillusioned or do not see the point.

It does not help that these elections are a one horse race, with all the political parties running on a 'stop the ANC from winning too much' platform. Inevitably the elections are seen as a formality.

"Why vote?" asks Bad Boy T - AKA Thomas Msingana - a disc jockey at Yfm, a popular commercial radio station in Johannesburg. "The first election had meaning, now you know the ANC's gonna win."

Life in South Africa since the last elections has become easier for people like Msingana. For young and educated black South Africans, life couldn't be better.

Suddenly there's a whole world opening up to them and that's about all they are concerned with. Whereas in the 80's street talk revolved directly around politics, these days pre-occupations are more about sex, clothes, cars and more importantly, money and careers.

'No time for politics'

So-called economic empowerment and affirmative action mean a lot of black youth are becoming successful at an early age because they are the ones who can slot into the positions being made available.

Comments like "we have no time for politics we want to make money" are so frequent it is startling. Ironically it doesn't occur to them that it was democracy that opened this world to them.

For white kids it is a slightly different situation. They are either planning to vote in someone to stop the ANC winning a two-thirds majority or they are planning to emigrate - or both.

Lisa Hirschon, a 24 year old advertising sales executive, says she'll be voting for Tony Leon's Democratic Party.

"My vote is based on fear," she says. "I'm afraid of what'll happen if the ANC gets a two thirds majority."

It's never quite clear what exactly the fear is beyond knowing that people like Tony Leon have painted a picture of the ANC trying to create a fascist autocracy by winning a democratic election.

In addition to stopping the ANC from winning by too large a margin, Hirschon also plans to emigrate. "I'm at a stage where I'm seriously considering marriage. That could mean children and I'm terrified of bringing my children up in this country."

South Africa 'too small'

But this isn't the only mindset among white youth. Lisa's colleague, Janine Goldblatt, is not going to vote because she has not registered - she didn't get around to it. Although she also plans to leave the country at some point her motivation has less to do with political disillusionment and more with economic practicalities.

"I'm in media and I feel South Africa is too small to allow me to grow," she says. "Despite what happens it'll never be like New York or London where there'll be endless opportunities because those countries are so big and their economies so large."

Cultural apartheid

South African youth also find itself burdened with the problem of racial co-existence.

For all the talk of a rainbow nation, South Africa is still two worlds and this applies as much to the younger generation, where there is evidence of a kind of voluntary cultural apartheid.

"I would never go to a black club," says Lisa Hirschon. "I'd be too intimidated."

Meanwhile Nelisiwe Mbuli stares pensively for almost a minute trying to answer why she has never been and probably would not go to Foundation, a white club that sometimes plays the house music she loves.

Thomas Msingana insists that it is more about cultural grounding than a conscious decision not to integrate. 'We're different. We like house music and hip hop, they like rock."

My final thoughts? No wonder politicians tend to stay away from young voters. South Africa's youth presents a formidable challenge to people who want to entice them.

Add to the equation the rift between black and white and one cannot help feeling that politicians are avoiding young people, because they do not know how to woo them.

Itumeleng Mahabane is Editor of Y Magazine in Johannesburg

Links to more South Africa elections stories are at the foot of the page.

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