Mind the Gap: Age and the Voter
“I was a bit…disgruntled when a group of people who perhaps were pensioners, although they seemed to be extremely fit and healthy, pushed directly in front of me because they claimed that they were the elderly and therefore able to no longer have to wait in line.” This is a big part of how Tara, a second-year student at UCT, describes her first voting experience. I can see that she’s trying hard to reconcile respect for the elderly with respect for the social norm of waiting in line. Still, it’s a struggle.
It may be a minor incident but it reveals a lot about the chasm between the “Born Free” Generation and the elderly in South Africa. This is particularly apparent when it comes to the subject of voting in the 2019 elections and which age group is more privileged and targeted by political parties.
“Sometimes, we watch the news and you feel like they more empower the youth than the elderly,” Mrs Fisher, a pensioner in Rondebosch, tells me. Even though the DA has long been wooing the elderly at Mrs Marks’ housing complex (offering lifts to the voting station, for instance), the youth are clearly the focus for political parties. Mrs Marks, also a pensioner, doesn’t feel disregarded by such focus: “It’s to make them better when they get into adulthood.” For Tara, this is a “natural disregard” as politicians look to secure their support base going into the future by targeting the youth vote.
Despite the effort political parties put into securing the youth vote, approximately 6 million South Africans under the age of 30 did not register to vote, even though they were eligible. While Tara never doubted that she would register to vote and enthuses about the “privilege” of voting after so much struggle, Lerato, another student at UCT who preferred to keep her identity anonymous, decided not to vote.
The elderly interviewees condemn youth like Lerato for not voting. They feel that making voting compulsory would be a good move. “Then you’ll get the rhythm of it!” Mr Fisher, a semi-retired missionary on pension, nods. “As a South African and a citizen I feel it’s my duty to vote so I can have a say and I can complain if things don’t go right…[Voting] is the best thing to do for your country,” his wife agrees and admits she was disappointed that her grandson didn’t vote. “When we are gone, they [the youth] are the future of the country so it’s good for them to vote.”
So why didn’t youth like Lerato vote? Lerato herself didn’t feel she could trust politicians, “I didn’t know who to vote for. I had no choice. I felt like my vote was going to be random if I did vote and I didn’t want that. I wanted to vote with a purpose.”
This lack of participation from young voters is odd when you consider that this is the same generation that shook the entire country with the #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall movements which actively led to the establishment of free tertiary education for the poor. There seems to be a bigger issue at hand than just confusion over who to vote for.
“Does this call for a party that appeals to more voters or a restructuring of the democratic system?” Tara ponders. As an African Studies student, she’s researched the implementation of democracy in Africa and concludes that “We need to find a way to create an authentic African experience of democracy: for example, smaller councils on a local level…so that the individual feels their voice is heard.”
Similarly, Gugu Resha, in a Mail & Guardian article, makes the point that the youth need to be included in democracy beyond “tokenistic elections”. She argues that the youth need to be educated on how to meaningfully participate in democracy, for example, by challenging bills of law.
These discerning young people are part of the “Born Free” generation who were born after the 1994 elections and so never experienced Apartheid. In the last few years, however, this identity has been fundamentally rejected by the youth, particularly during the #FeesMustFall movement.
“I wouldn’t classify myself as a Born Free,” Tara is adamant. “There’s way too much inequality, specifically along race lines, for us to pretend that now that apartheid is over everything is okay.”
Lerato also doesn’t see herself as a Born Free. “People’s mindsets haven’t changed. You still see racism in every sphere no matter how much people say there’s no racism.”
Mrs Fisher, on the other hand, is critical of the Born Frees’ scepticism, “They’ve got a much easier life than we have.” The 1994 elections were very special to Mrs Fisher who had never imagined she would vote before then. “It brought joy to us for the first time, being able to vote,” Mrs Marks reminisces, fondly looking on a 1994 ANC campaign poster featuring Nelson Mandela. “Mr Mandela was godsend…he can come out so forgiving to the people. He set the nation a very good example.” This moral example is lacking amongst the youth, Mr Fisher declares passionately. They should look to the elderly for a “high standard of fibre”.
But when it comes to the ages of government officials and politicians, both young and old agree that it’s time for them to retire. “They should really all go on pension. When we were working, we were told that if you’re 60 you must finish off your work and go home. Their ages is over the limit for them to work still and earn a good wage,” Mrs Fisher shakes her head.
Retirement age varies according to individual labour contracts but since financially-needy South Africans qualify for a state pension from the age of 60, many consider 60 to be retirement age. When it comes to politics, however, there is no limit: Mandela was 76 years old when he became South Africa’s president and the incumbent Ramaphosa is 66 years old.
Tara agrees with her elders, “The best thing you can be as a political leader is invested in the future of the country. If you are an old politician, you don’t have as much to lose as a younger politician who will have to live out the direct consequences of actions they are taking in Parliament.”
Lerato and Mrs Marks see that things are changing, however, as more younger politicians come into power: both Julius Malema and Mmusi Maimane, leaders of the top opposition parties, are 38 years old.
The young and old may be united when it comes to retirement age for politicians but when I ask each interviewee to specify what issues affect the other age group, it’s clear that there remains a deep discordance between the two groups.
While Mrs Fisher is convinced that the youth are in a better position than they are, Mrs Marks concedes that “young people also encounter a lot of problems”, although she cannot articulate what exactly those are. For Tara, her generation is “fed up with the system…and feeling like we haven’t come far enough.” This, she feels, has led to the popularisation of “radical ideas” like nationalisation, free education and land expropriation without compensation. Lerato agrees that education is a major issue for the youth and gives #FeesMustFall as an example.
The youth, too, are at a loss for what issues the elderly face in South Africa. “It’s difficult to say,” Tara admits, although she does mention that perhaps pension plans are important to the elderly. For older people, in general, she thinks that they are more interested in “practical elements rather than radical issues”, such as the efficiency of Home Affairs services.
Mrs Marks is grateful for the provisions the new government has made but both she and Mrs Fisher feel that the R1800 a month state pension is not enough. “I don’t think we really get what we deserve from our government,” Mrs Fisher declares.
The best Lerato can come up with is crime which affects all age groups but she’s not sure what issue is particularly important to the elderly. Mr Fisher, though, shares her concern, “because of the deep hurt that this could bring about and people living in fear…When you ring the bell, they want to see who you are first.”
Mr Fisher, who is on a crutch after a bicycle accident last year, also lambasts the public health services for inefficiency. He can spend an entire day at the day hospital, from 5:40 to 15:45. Most of the patients are elderly, he says.
As a Christian, he is also concerned about the lack of morality in the country which he sees in the LGBTIQ+ society and the right to have an abortion. He recommends the death penalty, which he has witnessed first-hand in Botswana as a missionary, “It really tidies up the country.”
Since the elderly couldn’t specify what exactly affects the youth and the youth could only guess what issues might be of concern to the elderly, it’s easy to conclude that these two groups are vastly alienated from each other. However, both groups care passionately about South Africa. In a country that’s divided along so many lines, particularly race, it’s always beneficial if we can connect with each other along any line. While Tara experienced the elderly as a bit pushy without reason, elders like Mr Fisher who criticise the youth’s lack of respect for the elderly would probably have expected her to make way without question. Both age groups have valid reasons for thinking the way they do about their place in our democracy— if only they could communicate those to each other.