Picture: THINKSTOCK
Picture: THINKSTOCK

AGANG SA is due to formally transform into a fully fledged political party on Saturday, and indications are that other parties will also look to win the hearts and minds of young voters.

The youth do not always care to vote, and when they do they often mirror their parents’ choices. While they are indeed "different" and demographically defined, in South Africa the youth are by no means a homogenous bloc. Any political party expecting an "Obama moment" that upsets established voting norms is likely to come face to face with the traditional party divisions associated with the established voting patterns of older generations.

Between 2-million and 3-million 18-and 19-year-olds could participate in next year’s elections. These are the so called "born frees", conceived during or after South Africa’s democratic transition in 1994.

Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) data indicate that those aged 18 to 30 could account for over 35% of the 31.4-million voters next year.

This sets the stage for an uphill battle among parties looking to impress the impressionable youth.

To capture some of these voters, the Democratic Alliance (DA) has embarked on a publicity campaign to stress its own history in the struggle era.

Agang has indicated it intends interacting with the youth through social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and Mxit.

Former African National Congress (ANC) Youth League president Julius Malema, who played no small role in the 2009 national elections, is casting about for a constituency with the launch of his "Economic Freedom Fighters" political platform.

Part of its raison d’être would be tapping into the youth, as they "become increasingly disgruntled under the leadership of the African National Congress (ANC)".

In the 2009 elections, Mr Malema, and the ANC Youth League, saw themselves as "kingmakers" following their role in getting President Jacob Zuma elected as the head of the party.

While the youth are already active at the polls, perceptions of apathy ahead of the 2009 elections sparked widespread concern. Even though the IEC does not collect statistics on voting patterns, the participation of youth in 2009 was widely celebrated. The rate of participation of citizens in elections is also seen as a barometer of political legitimacy.

However, South Africa does not sit easily with international theory. Political analyst Steven Friedman is quick to dismiss the notion that the high number of youth is an inherent wild card in the elections, or that "born frees" should be seen as a "clean slate" for political identification.

Prof Friedman does not believe that the youth are a bloc with its own set of peculiarities. "There is a kind of assumption that people do not have families and relatives, but this is clearly not so. With exceptions, the bulk of people share their values with the previous generation," he says.

In the 2009 elections, those aged between 18 and 29 made up 27% of registered voters, and it is likely that this figure will be exceeded next year.

That same age bracket already embraces 22% of the 23-million registered voters, a year before vigorous registration drives by political parties and the state.

According to the IEC, 10% of the almost 2-million youth aged 18 and 19 are registered to vote, and 52% of the 9.5-million youth aged 20 to 29 are registered. Registration drastically increases by age band, to 99% for those over 60.

However, the manager of governance, institutions and processes at the Electoral Institute for the Sustainability of Democracy in Africa, Ebrahim Fakir, says youth, unlike older voters, are less likely to see the "formal political system" as the primary means of political delivery. Youth are less likely to see casting a ballot as an ultimate form of political expression, and more likely to look for "networks".

This is a global trend, with social protests such as the "Occupy movement", and occurs in South Africa, where movements like the Treatment Action Campaign achieved success.

Participation of the youth in such networks affects youth voting patterns. Parties that seemingly form "direct connections" with the youth during electioneering, either through rallies or social media, see results, says Mr Fakir.

Collette Schulz-Herzenberg, a research fellow at the University of Cape Town’s Centre for Social Science Research, says the trend of declining voter participation in South Africa can largely be ascribed to voters dissatisfied with their party.

While South Africa’s youth are "strongly socialised in accordance with party lines", they are far more likely to be exposed to different political messages and therefore to find a "political home", she says. For parties, especially the opposition, the means is worth the end in gaining inroads into the youth vote. Thus it will be surprising if there are not concerted efforts and substantial resources devoted to tailoring party messages.