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29 July 2016

Youth interest and understanding in South African politics

Yul Derek Davids, Tyanai Masiya, Jare Struwig, Steven Gordon and Benjamin Roberts
Press Release


Speculation is rife that the ruling party has lost some of its appeal among South Africans, many of whom have grown frustrated with waiting for the promises of a “better life for all”. According to some analysts, disillusionment with the ANC has gradually been building over the past few years, with people generally feeling that the ruling party is out of touch with the hardships of ordinary citizens. As a result, analysts have ventured that alignment or “feelings of closeness” to the ruling party has been diminishing. In this article, Jare Struwig, Stephen Gordon and Benjamin Roberts explore alignment with the ruling party over time and also how it compares with other parties.

Data from the South African Social Attitudes Survey (SASAS), an annual cross-national opinion survey was used in this study. The SASAS sample is 3 500 adults aged 16 years and older living in private homes. Most rounds of the survey are conducted between October and December of each year and all questionnaires are translated into the various major languages of the country.


It is commonly known that young people across the world have relatively low levels of political interest and understanding of politics. With the upcoming 2016 Municipal Elections on our door step Yul Derek Davids, Tyanai Masiya, Jare Struwig, Steven Gordon and Benjamin Roberts explored the youth’s level of interest and understanding of politics. 

Youth public action such as the recent Rhodes Must Fall (#RhodesMustFall) (RMF) and Fees Must Fall (#FeesMustFall) student protests indicate that young people are very concerned about public issues. Nonetheless, although these protest actions are testimony that youth do engage with politics and public issues that affect them, it is worrying that the protest actions are often turning violent and do not translate into the power of the vote. These protest actions highlight lack of formal engagements with the state by the youth, including participation in politics. It is against this background that we   highlight perceptions of young people’s political interest by using data from the South African Social Attitudes Survey (SASAS), an annual cross-national opinion survey carried out by the Human Sciences Research Council.


A popular stereotype about youth is that they lack interest in politics – and this is not unfounded as our survey showed just that. More than a quarter (29%) of those in the 16-19 and the 20-24 age group said that they were interested in politics. However, we should caution that South African youth is not alone. As Prof Adam Habib of Wits commented during the 2014 National Elections, ‘Apathy…is a global trend. South Africa’s youth are no different than American, British, European or Indian youth. It would be unfair to call them apolitical as a whole”.

Many people in South Africa may feel that the country’s politics is too complicated to understand. To obtain an idea of whether ordinary South Africans agree with this statement, SASAS 2015 included the following question ‘How often does politics seem so complicated that you cannot really understand what is going on?’ Responses ranged from frequently to never.

SASAS data reveal (Table 1) that the youth (i.e. the 16-24 age group) is marginally more likely to say ‘never’ when asked if politics is too complicated to understand. When asked if politics was too complicated to understand, 14% of the 16-24 age group said ‘never’ compared to 18% of the 25-34 age group. However overall there is very little variation in responses by age cohort. Those in the 16-24 age group were not notably different from older groups in terms of how they felt that politics was too complicated to figure out. Therefore in general, the majority of the youth do not believe politics is too complicated to understand.

Voter participation influences an individual’s self-reported level of political interest and understanding. Youth who said that they had voted in the 2014 National Election were much more likely to say that they comprehend politics than those who said that they had not voted in the last national election. Half of the 16-24 age group did not vote in the last election.

An education system can transform individual character by intertwining civic norms and virtues into that system. It can be claimed that South Africa’s modern education system promotes democratic culture by teaching the democratic values systems of our society. Given this, it was interesting to also the educational attainment factor.

It was interesting to find that different educational attainment categories among the youth did report distinct differences in their self-reported level of political understanding. Roughly a quarter (26%) of those individuals with Grade 9 and below said that they frequently found politics difficult to understand. This compares favourably with young matriculates – only 13% of those with a matric said politics were frequently too difficult to understand. It would appear that highly-educated young South Africans were less likely to find politics too difficult to understand when compared to those who are less educated.

Considering levels of trust in selected political institutions and groups by age group, we noted few distinct differences between age groups. It would appear that young South Africans are just as likely to trust local government, the Electoral Commission, political parties and politicians as those who are older. The differences between age groups were marginal.

However when examining attitudes towards voting by age group (Table 3), we noted some distinct differences between age groups. It would appear that many young South Africans thought that voting makes no difference, voting is meaningless and that after being elected all parties are the same. Those in the 16-24 age group are much more likely to believe that voting makes no difference. Young people were less likely to share the belief that voting is the duty of all citizens.

This article showed that there are multiple factors that impact on youth level of political interest and knowledge. Their appreciation of politics, voting experience, level of education, trust in political institution and leadership as well as their specific age group all influence their level of political interest and understanding.