How will South Africa's 'born-frees' vote?

South Africans vote in national elections 2009 South Africa's political parties are hoping to capture the youth vote in 2014

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It might seem like a rather mundane bureaucratic procedure - the registration of new voters in a country with an already well-tested and credible electoral system.

But this weekend will see a nationwide push to sign up a very special generation of South Africans - the "born-frees."

Elections will be held here next year, on the 20th anniversary of South African democracy. They will be the first elections in which those who were born after the end of apartheid in 1994 will be eligible to vote.

Start Quote

One of the biggest challenges for our maturing democracy is apathy”

End Quote Justice Malala Political Commentator

The born-frees are widely assumed to be less swayed by history and more likely to consider voting for a party other than the ANC, the liberation movement that has always run post-apartheid South Africa.

But the born-frees can only play a political role here if they can be bothered to vote. And as things stand, they seem to be staying on the sidelines.

At present only 8.4% of 18-19 year olds are registered to vote. Among 20-29 year olds that figure rises to an unremarkable 49.4%.

"One of the biggest challenges for our maturing democracy is apathy," said commentator Justice Malala. "And it's a challenge for opposition parties here in particular."

Perhaps the loudest political voice amongst younger South Africans belongs to Julius Malema - the former head of the ANC's struggling Youth League. His new party, the red-beret wearing populist Economic Freedom Fighters, is explicitly appealing to younger voters struggling to find work in an economy where almost half of them have no formal job, and where the education system is lagging behind much of Africa.

"The EFF is targeting those disillusioned jobless kids. But you need to get them to register [to vote] and for that you need a lot of money," said Mr Malala.

Apathy rules?

South Africa's political landscape is changing steadily, with opposition parties - in particular the Democratic Alliance - chipping away at the ANC's crushing parliamentary majority.

Many speculate that once an elderly Nelson Mandela is no longer with us, the ANC's powerful emotional grip on many South Africans will quickly be broken.

But you only have to look to Japan or Mexico to see how a fractured opposition, and the ties of history, can help keep a ruling party in place for many decades. Others will no doubt point to a different example closer at hand, just across the Limpopo.

Many analysts expect the ANC's share of the vote to dip, significantly, at next year's election - perhaps well below 60% - and predict a further, and more decisive haemorrhaging of support in 2018.

The party has been badly damaged by high-profile corruption allegations, a growing sense of political paralysis, the Marikana mine killings, and its increasingly fractious relationship with the labour movement.

And yet the ANC has plenty of important achievements to its name, it has the advantages of incumbency, and a well-oiled political machine to ensure its supporters are not only registered, but turn out to vote on polling day.

Apathy may be a problem here. But it might just be the ANC's saviour.

Andrew Harding, Africa correspondent Article written by Andrew Harding Andrew Harding Africa correspondent

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