Students massed outside Parliament in Cape Town last year, demanding that politicians pay attention to their #FeesMustFall campaign. Picture: THE TIMES
Students massed outside Parliament in Cape Town last year, demanding that politicians pay attention to their #FeesMustFall campaign. Picture: THE TIMES

LAST year, there was unprecedented post-apartheid political involvement by the youth of SA, starting with protests against the Cecil John Rhodes statue at the University of Cape Town and building up to the #FeesMustFall campaign.

The circumstances facing the youth, particularly with regard to unemployment, have been highlighted. Young people’s treatment of political leaders has also been unprecedented in post-apartheid SA.

When Democratic Alliance (DA) Mmusi Maimane tried to address students, he was booed away. Higher Education and Training Minister Blade Nzimande was booed while he tried to address students who marched to Parliament. At Luthuli House, African National Congress (ANC) secretary-general Gwede Mantashe was told to sit on the floor before students would read their demands to him.

The students did not want to listen to what politicians had to say to them, nor did they want to listen on the terms set by politicians — they wanted to set their own terms. While this can be dismissed as young people being difficult or obstructive, it points to the fact that the youth are tired of being spoken to and want someone to listen to them, particularly the politicians.

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IN A democracy, a citizen’s vote is supposed to be his or her biggest voice. It can be used to show displeasure or to support government action.

While every South African citizen has the right to vote, this does not mean that the youth automatically have a voice in politics. Those turning 18 after this year’s municipal elections will be able to vote only in the next national election, when they are 21. Three years will pass before they can have their first say in a government that will make decisions about their future.

At the age of 16, young people can work, drive motorcycles and pay tax. They, however, have no say in government policies that affect them directly.

The youth have unique concerns that older voters might not share, particularly regarding education and the environment. The current government can incur debt that the youth will have to pay off in the future, and yet they have no say over government expenditure — expenditure that could ensure free university tuition, for example.

It is little wonder that the youth feel they don’t have a voice in society; many can’t vote for someone to represent their interests in government until they are much older. They are given an impotent voice, through public relations exercises such as the Youth Parliament.

It therefore; makes sense that young people storm Parliament — they have no political structure in which they are heard.

Austria and Brazil have lowered the voting age. In the recent Scottish referendum, 16-year-olds were allowed to vote. In 2013, MPs in the UK voted 119 to 46 in favour of a nonbinding resolution to lower the voting age to 16. Stephen Williams, the Liberal Democrat MP who tabled the debate, was criticised by a Tory MP for trying to look "trendy" to win over young voters. While this is probably true, there is surely nothing wrong with that.

The youth in SA play a pivotal role in its future and should be courted by politicians who pay heed to them.

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THE arguments against lowering the voting age include that they are too immature, not educated enough and are more vulnerable to duress.

Maturity and education, however, cannot be a determining factor of who can vote. There are many people older than 18 who vote, but are immature and uneducated.

Moreover, the standard by which the ability to vote is measured cannot be based on personality or intelligence; it must be a right inherent to being human.

While young people might be more vulnerable to duress, they are also stereotypically rebellious. Most 16-year-olds will not follow blindly what their parents say, or anyone else for that matter.

If 16-year-olds are mature enough to work and pay tax, they must surely be old enough to appreciate who they vote for, and the consequences of such a vote.

With youth issues at the forefront of South African politics, there is an opportunity for opposition parties to put forward a private members bill amending legislation to lower the voting age to 16.

The former national spokesman of the DA, Marius Redelinghuys, called in a 2011 Mail & Guardian opinion article for the voting age to be lowered, but nothing seems to have come from the call.

This is an opportunity for opposition parties to set the agenda on the youth. Any party that votes against lowering the voting age would have a difficult time defending such a stance to the youth, who obviously want a voice.

It is an opportunity for opposition parties to try to get the youth on their side, instead of the youth shushing or booing them.

Maimane’s Youth Day speech at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University last year simply dealt with the DA’s 2029 blueprint and what the party would do for the youth should it come to power. Similarly, the Youth Day speech in Parliament by Mbuyiseni Ndlozi of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) called only for the seven non-negotiable pillars of the EFF to be implemented. Most, if not all, of the pillars can be implemented only by a government, not an opposition party.

Lowering the voting age is something the DA and EFF can campaign for right now. It might give MPs a reason to attend Youth Day debates in Parliament.

Attendance at last year’s Youth Day joint sitting was an embarrassing 30%. Lowering the voting age does, however, present a risk to political parties. New voters may be brought into the fold who may not vote for the party that campaigned to allow them to vote.

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BUT opposition parties may want as many born-free voters as possible, as they are supposedly less likely to be loyal to the ruling party.

The ANC has been losing ground in student representative council elections across the country, which should get opposition parties excited to have the youth voting.

With the municipal election around the corner, political parties should be trying to set the agenda on issues, and youth issues will certainly be one of the talking points.

Political parties must start setting the agenda with the youth in mind, and lowering the voting age is one such step that will give the youth a structured platform to be heard.

• Norval was previously a researcher for the DA and now works for ENSafrica. He writes in his personal capacity