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South African Elections Show Youth's New Force


During the elections in South Africa, a great deal of attention was paid to young voters whose growing numbers are causing a major demographic shift in the country. Young voters turned out in large numbers and emerged as a new force in South African politics.

It is early morning in the Orlando neighborhood of Soweto and a sharp wind blows on the hundreds of people waiting to vote at a neighborhood school.

The voting center lies two blocks from the site of a massacre in 1976 of school children who were demonstrating against apartheid. It was an event that marked a turning point in the movement and is commemorated by the nearby apartheid museum.

Ayanda Sithole, 19, who works for an insurance company, was not alive that day but she knows her history. She is excited about voting for the first time because she feels she now has a say in her country's future.

"It is working. It's paid [finished] the apartheid era," said Sithole. "Because right now look at us. We've got have the right to vote, to choose, to say I like that, I don't like that. The freedom is all over the place for everyone."

The African National Congress, which led the anti-apartheid struggle, is expected to win the elections. But after 15 years in power it is facing increasing criticism for failing to meet people's expectations.

First-time voter Lesego Manye, 22, says too many young people today are unemployed.

"We all want to have money. We all want to live good," said Manye. "So that's the reason why I'm saying, having jobs, so it will be a better place for everybody, knowing that income will be coming in. No hunger. It will decrease poverty."

One-third of South Africa's voters are under the age of 30 years. And more than two million new voters were registered for this election. Political experts say young voters are more likely to switch political allegiances if they are disappointed, a fact that has not been lost on the politicians.

Thembekile Magadla, 25, has been looking for a permanent job since she graduated from school five years ago.

She acknowledges there have been some improvements under the ANC government but says that does not mean she will always vote for it.

"A lot of things are changing in South Africa. We've got RDP [public] houses," she said. "They are fixing the streets, the electricity. They are canceling the rents. So at least I can see the improvements in South Africa, especially in Soweto. [But] if there's no development I'll go for other parties."

Bongani Mazibuko, 32, has been unemployed since leaving school 12 years ago. He voted in the elections of 1999 but did not vote five years ago.

"I didn't have any interest last time," said Mazibuko. "But I can see now I have to because I need a change at home."

Siphiwe Nkosi, a 25-year-old salesman, says there are other needs that he would like to tell the new leadership to focus on.

"Try to create some jobs, more sports and better education. Open new schools and maybe the kids shouldn't pay the fines [fees] for school because I think with better education we are going somewhere," said Nkosi.

University student Khethewinkosi Basi, 20, hopes South Africa's next leader will adopt a new style and be more responsive to the people.

"He must sit down with the people, communicate with everybody to have an equal [relationship], not like the former ones [leaders]. If he sits with the people and tries to be nice to the people and also take advice from other parties, he will succeed," said Basi.

Experts say the ANC, because of its anti-apartheid credentials, still enjoys strong support among young people. But they also note that many young people say they want change and this is leading some of them to consider voting for the opposition.


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