African countries have been implored to capacitate the youth and rope in more inclusive ways to facilitate their participation in electoral process and politics as a whole. These sentiments were expressed by participants at the Roundtable on Elections and Youth, held in Pretoria, South Africa late last year. The roundtable report released recently shows that though participants have at times varied individuals view depending on their position and country of origin they all agreed youth participation in the electoral process in Africa is facing unique features that requires greater responsive urgency.
According to the report the levels of youth participation in national and regional representative structures have been low in the region and very often elections fail to attract the attention of youth. Many young people are said to be therefore exercising power outside of formal electoral processes in situations of social and economic exclusion and difficulty and little is often done to specially target young people and build their confidence in formal democratic electoral systems as a vehicle for political renewal. To capture the importance accorded to youth on the Continent, The Chairperson of Electoral Commissions Forum of the Southern Africa Development Community countries (ECF-SADC) Executive Committee Justice Mahapela Lehohla, made reference to the African Youth Charter and in particular its provisions relating to youth participation in democratic processes.
He noted that the integration of young people into mainstream politics is important, as historically young people have demonstrated dynamism and an ability to lead societies and effect changes that are beneficial to all. To encourage future oriented reflections, Justice Lehohla postulated that the Roundtable needs to reflect on participations at all stages of the electoral cycle. He emphasised that it was particularly important for there to be legal frameworks that encourage participation and to ensure that the youth are engaged with to secure their voices within elected representative structures. He concluded, by re-emphasising that youth inclusion was a substantive imperative as young people can be central in shaping more productive and functional societies.
For his part International Foundation for Electoral Systems' (IFES) Regional Director for Africa, Rushdi Nackerdien, he highlighted some of the realities of youth in Africa, which include the fact that over 65 per cent of the African populations is below 35 years and over 60 per cent are located in urban centres. He further outlined that many young people are unemployed, have access to communications technology and very often feel disconnected from the transition to multi-party democracy. He noted further that the levels of trust and disillusionment in political process are dwindling due to lack of awareness and the issue of corruption amongst the leaders which makes the youth believe that their vote will not make a difference and many young people feel marginalised and hence easily radicalised.
Drawing further from IFES research, Nackerdien noted that there are positive elements, such as the levels of education, which can be built upon in the construction of youth participation strategies. He noted that a key approach would be to engage the youth on Civic education as early as possible and to sustain participation over a number of electoral periods. He reiterated that the first three elections after eligibility are crucial in order to establish a voting habit among young people. He also emphasized that quality education is needed as the well-informed youth tends to be more supportive of democracy. One of delegates from Botswana who attended the Roundtable, Selebi-Phikwe West Member of Parliament (MP), Dithapelo Keorapetse, drew from his own experiences as a young elected representative in the Parliament of Botswana.
As a young person trying to enter the political space Keorapetse noted that he had to overcome some of difficulties. Drawing from his experiences, Keorapetse noted that during his initial period of campaigning it was challenging to mobilise funding as many considered him too young and inexperienced to enter politics. He managed to mobilise resources from friends and leveraged these to attract further resources. He further noted that many older people in politics struggled to accept him as a candidate and often react to him on the basis of age and not on the substance of issues. Among some of his recommendation to the Electoral Management Bodies (EMBs) are changing electoral laws so that they encourage younger people to register and engage, building the confidence of young people through active training in electoral politics, working on strategies to enhance access to media and the use of social media for campaigns.
The roundtable was arranged by the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA) in collaboration with the Electoral Commissions Forum of the Southern Africa Development Community countries (ECF-SADC). The Electoral Commission of South Africa hosted the roundtable. The roundtable was arranged as part of the process of documenting the challenges and practices directed at youth inclusion in politics and within electoral processes from across the continent by IDEA, with the overall purpose of sharing experiences and using the learning that arises from these as a basis for establishing deeper commitment to implementable youth inclusion strategies and activities for the future. The specific objective of the Roundtable was hence to identify entry points for EMBs as they seek to shape their approaches for youth inclusion.