How to Hire a President

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Young South Africans are confused about who to vote for. This year, there are dozens of parties to choose from on the ballot paper. But for many young voters, having lots of options doesn’t make it any easier. With a presidential election just around the corner, Radio Workshop reporter Naomi Grewan asks young people "Why?” and "How are you going to figure it out?"

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Lesedi: Hi, I’m Lesedi Mogoatlhe and this is Radio Workshop. 30 years ago, South Africa had its first democratic election. It was April 27th, 1994.

Archive: Some people have waited all their lives to put their cross, but it doesn’t matter how long it takes, they are going to make their mark.

Lesedi: An iconic election. The first time all non-white South Africans could cast a ballot.

It marked the end of apartheid rule.

Archive: At last, we are given the chance to take part in the decision-making process of this country.

Lesedi: In 1994, the Electoral Commission of South Africa recorded over 19 million votes, many of them young people, youth who fought and protested for liberation. This was their opportunity to use their right to vote for the first time.

Archive: I did vote. It was wonderful. And we’re all happy. Even my sister here. She must have a smile because she knows what she votes for. But she didn’t tell me, and I didn’t ask her.

Lesedi: In that first democratic election, it was the African National Congress, the ANC, that emerged victorious, taking 62 per cent of the vote. At that point, the party was led by Nelson Mandela, who became the beloved first black president of South Africa.

Nelson Mandela Archive: We have at last achieved our political emancipation. We pledge ourselves to liberate all our people from the continuing bondage of poverty, deprivation, suffering, gender, and other discrimination.

Lesedi: The ANC has continued to win every national election since 1994. But as the years have gone by, support for the party has dwindled. Today, South Africa faces a myriad of problems. Rolling blackouts, disruptions in water service, inequality, corruption, and more. A youth unemployment rate nearing 50 per cent. And Dr. Roberts from the Human Sciences Research Council says South Africans, including young South Africans, are far more critical of government leadership.

Dr Ben Roberts: Particularly the performance of institutions such as parliament and national government. Their hopes and dreams are not being fully realised, despite the promise of 94. Is democracy really performing the way we want it to be? Is it meeting my needs?

Lesedi: Now a new election is nearing, the 7th since 1994. South Africans will vote on the 29th of May 2024. A recent poll by the Social Research Foundation of South Africa suggested that the ANC may garner as little as 37 per cent of the vote. With the ANC struggling, other political parties feel they have a fighting chance to fill the void. Like the official opposition party, the Democratic Alliance. There are newer parties too, like the Economic Freedom Fighters, Action SA, Rise Mzansi, and many others that have become attractive alternatives for voters.

And now even the controversial former president Jacob Zuma was recently added to the ballot. There are dozens and dozens of options on the ballot paper. And for many young people, the question is, who should I vote for? You would imagine that being spoiled for choice would spark excitement for the almost 5 million young South Africans who have registered to vote.

But instead, they’re anxious and confused.

Abigail: Honestly, I have mixed emotions about this election.

Lesedi: Radio Workshop put a call out to young people at our partner radio stations across South Africa. We asked, the election is coming. How are you feeling?

Sikelela: I am definitely feeling confused in terms of which party to vote for. And that’s because I do not trust any political party to fulfill its promises.

Siya: I’m not going to lie. I kind of feel like it’s very confusing to decide who to vote for because currently all the parties are trying to sell the idea of a better South Africa to us because they want to win the public over.

Lesedi: So how do you make a decision when there are so many candidates and you don’t have faith in any of them? Our reporter Naomi Grewan is feeling the same way. This is her second chance to vote in a national election since she turned 18, and she’s nervous.

Naomi: To be honest, I’m panicking. The election is so close, and I’m no closer to knowing who I want to vote for. It’s the same with my friends. It comes up so often. At dinner, at drinks, on the couch in between conversations about Beyoncé’s latest album. Who are you voting for? I don’t know. Every time someone thinks they’re certain, the candidate does or says something that dissuades them and puts them right back at square one.

Like when Herman Mashaba, Action SA’s candidate, said in an interview with BizNews that he wants to do away with minimum wage. A friend was like, uncheck. Another friend was thinking of voting for Musi Maimane of the Build One South Africa Party until an old photo resurfaced online of Maimane shaking hands with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Can’t trust him with my vote, my friend said. But that left her confused about who to select instead. I have so many examples like this. And it’s not just my circle of friends who are feeling this way. Dr. Roberts from the HSRC says nearly 80 per cent of young people don’t know who to vote for.

Dr Ben Roberts: I think that’s why we’ve also seen the rise of various NGOs and other bodies trying to actually encourage youth to turn out.

Naomi: Activate Change Drivers is one of these organizations, and they’re keenly aware of how confused young people are. Activate started in 2012 in response to a decline in the number of young people voting in elections, and they’re very eager to help young people, in a non-partisan manner, figure out who to vote for.

How? I went on a hike to find out.

Naomi live: So I’m here at the start of the Activate hike at Klipriviersberg in Johannesburg.

Naomi: The hike was scheduled to start at 8am. I got there early to set up my mic and it was packed with other hikers. It turns out hiking on Saturday mornings, even when it’s really hot, is more popular than I thought. I met up with a group of young people invited by Activate. This hike was one of a series of pre-election events they’re hosting across the country.

Naomi live: Currently we’re a group of 20.

Naomi: Activate encourages young people to be engaged citizens. They host community braais or barbecues and other activations with a network of about 5000 young people across South Africa. Political party reps are always invited to engage with the group. Like at today’s hike. This event is specifically for young people interested in climate change and environmental policy.

Naomi live: Do you know how long the walk is?

Tebelelo live: Um, no, but no more than two kilometers.

Naomi: I first meet Tebelelo Lentsoane, a program coordinator and researcher at Activate. Like all the other members of Activate here today, she’s wearing an Activate t-shirt with We Are Voting on the front. Tebelelo hands out bottles of water to everyone with a welcoming smile on her face. Most of the hikers are in their 20s and early 30s. After grabbing water from Tebelelo, the group is on their way down the dirt path towards the trail.

Attendee: You can go with them. Um, don’t you want water?

Naomi: As we start walking, the sun beats down. The wind picks up. And eventually, we get to talking about the purpose of today’s hike.

Tebelelo: It’s a campaign, uh, that aims to explore the interconnectedness of climate change and a changing political climate in South Africa.

Naomi: One of Tebelelo’s jobs today is to facilitate a discussion between undecided voters on the hike and youth representatives from different political parties, including the ANC, Economic Freedom Fighters, Rise Mzansi, and Action SA. They’ll each present their party’s environmental policies. They’ll answer questions, hopefully help people get clearer on who to vote for, and we’ll find out if Activate’s approach is successful.

But that formal discussion will come later. First, we walk.

Naomi: We’re only 100 meters into the hike and Tebelelo and I have become unofficial hiking buddies.

Naomi live: Do you, do you do these walks and hiking trails often?

Tebelelo: I actually do. I was here, uh last year, November.

Naomi: This year’s national election is her third. During previous elections, she says she knew who to vote for. It was perfectly clear for her, no doubts. But this year, it’s different. She says the newer parties are too neoliberal for her liking. And the older ones, well, corruption is just the start of her concerns about them.

Tebelelo: I’m still undecided, and May 29 is first approaching, but I’m registered and I will definitely go and make my mark.

Naomi: Tebelelo says that even she, someone who is steeped in the country’s politics, hopes the discussion with the party representatives today will give her clarity.

Tebelelo: Yeah, so I’m, I’m quite uncertain.

Naomi: I have to say, it was validating to know that even Tebelelo, someone whose day to day life is filled with politics, is also still figuring things out.

She had a lot of other really interesting things to say too, like how this year young people make up 42 per cent of the total registered voters, which is lower than in 1994, but higher than the last election, and how the number of women registered to vote is higher than the number of men, and how this is usually the case in South Africa.

We had so much to talk about that we met up two weeks later, mostly because I was curious. How has someone so plugged into politics not figured out who to vote for? As we got into our conversation, Tebelelo told me she loves Japanese literature, and when she’s not doing democracy work, she’s reading a Murakami book and daydreaming about Japanese coffee shops. She’s also patriotic and loves South Africa.

Tebelelo: We have the best weather, we have the best foods, we have rooibos! And we have just so, so many things that you don’t find anywhere else in the world.

Naomi: Tebelelo grew up in a small village in Limpopo called Ga-Paahla.

Tebelelo: It’s literally encircled by mountains, we have a flowing river across – beautiful – and I grew up thinking that there isn’t any other parts of the world beyond that.

Naomi live: At what point did you realize that that wasn’t the case?

Tebelelo: I think, um, so later on we had electricity, with that we had access to media, um, so we could consume news on television, um, we could see what’s happening to the rest of the world, um, so our world kind of like expanded and opened up that we are you not just citizens of this small village or this province, we are global citizens through this characters that we are seeing on television. It was so incredible.

Naomi: We have on one of our bookshelves in the garage, it’s my grandmother’s first TV, which I don’t think is bigger than like a ruler. Like it’s, it’s tiny. And like now I’m sitting here with like a laptop in front of me and it’s just crazy to think how things have changed. Absolutely.

Tebelelo: Absolutely.

Naomi: When Tebelelo was 18, she left her village to join her mum in Johannesburg. She enrolled in university. First, to study journalism, but then she changed her law. Being in Joburg exposed her to a side of South Africa she hadn’t seen before.

Tebelelo: You are yanked out of this bubble of, you know, um, everything is kumbaya, everything is okay, everything is peaceful, there’s community and, and safety and, and all of that. And you are coming to Johannesburg, which is just so fast-paced and hectic and you are acutely aware of the state of the world, but mostly the state of my country of South Africa.

Naomi: And that was where her interest in social justice began. She noticed that some of what was regarded as normal back home was actually not okay. Like how her village didn’t have a clinic.

Tebelelo: It makes you angry to see that there’s a lot of injustice and disregard for human rights in this community and you feel this helplessness. And also it’s not part of the culture that people are complaining that there’s no clinic or mobilizing, uh, no one is signing petitions. for people to access, you know, services that are due to them, that they have a right to constitutionally.

Naomi: The young people who sent us voice notes were equally irritated by South Africa’s infrastructure problems.

Siya: For me, load shedding alone is a huge crisis, not to mention, um, factors like unemployment amongst young people, service delivery. Basic service delivery of essential services. We need leaders who are going to have these issues at heart, leaders who are going to make the change that we want to see, because we trusted them enough to put them in that position.

Ncumani: Corruption, mismanagement of funds, violent crime. and poor government service delivery to impoverished communities.

Naomi: When I spoke with Dr. Roberts from the HSRC, he was clear to say that because young people are confused and undecided, they aren’t apathetic.

Dr Ben Roberts: I prefer disillusionment to apathy. Apathy implies a lack of care. I just don’t care anymore. Disillusionment means it speaks more to a degree of frustration and I wish that that disillusionment would be a mobilizer for voting rather than a disincentive to vote.

Tebelelo: It’s understandable that most people, especially young people in the country, are losing faith and trust in democracy.

Naomi: That’s Tebelelo again.

Tebelelo: I just think that with the history of South Africa and where we come from as a country, we do not have the luxury of being ignorant. We have to be responsible citizens. We have to be responsive. We have to be active.

Tebelelo live: I’m Tebelelo. I’m from Activate. I work with an amazing team. My team is here…

Naomi: Back at Klipriviersberg the hike is over, which is good, because I’m hot.

Tebelelo live: Rise here. And ActionSA um, EFF, do we have the ANC representatives? Um, and do we have the, do we have the DA?

Naomi: Everyone is sitting in a circle under a tree nearly on top of one another so that we’re not in the sun. Once Tebelelo welcomes everyone, she hands the presentation over to Tebogo Suping, the program’s director.

Tebogo: Never has there been a greater time for people to come together in this way. Outside of your political affiliation, your ideology, your colour…

Naomi: As Tebogo speaks, the audience is captivated, and the other Activate team members are all smiling up at her.

Tebogo: Steve Biko said, “It would matter not what ideological principles that you stood for if nothing around you starts to shift.” That’s on the ground. That’s in your street. That’s in your home. Now I’m talking about things that are within close proximity to yourself.

Naomi: It’s now time for party representatives to make their pitch. To kick it off, the youth representatives from each party make a case as to why their climate change policies are the best.

Attendees: We do as Rise Mzansi have a political stance or a policy stance on the climate crisis that we face. Politics is personal. And that our experiences are all, we are all interconnected with each other from the challenges, from our human experiences. So what ActionSA is now proposing is that we need more preventative measures in place. We need to re-look at the current policies.

Naomi: Once the parties made their presentations, it was time for questions. But nobody had any. Instead, they took the opportunity to air their grievances.

Attendees: I’m here simply because I’m a bit angry. We all know of the reports of money being stolen. I think last week you lost two kids because of the environment, the climate change is too hot and those kids are new. Uh, it’s political that people in KZN and some of them are still displaced up until today. And it’s a, it’s a, it’s a climate issue…

Naomi: The feedback the Activate team received at the end of the discussion was mostly positive. People found the event informative but wanted more political parties present.

Activate said what wasn’t clear after the event is whether the discussion helped young voters reach a decision on who to vote for. But everyone walked away in high spirits and with new T-shirts matching the We Are Voting ones the Activate team was wearing.

Tebelelo was hoping the discussion would help her determine who to vote for. Did it? Not really. In fact, it was only two weeks later that she made a decision.

Naomi live: What have you been doing in the past two weeks that’s kind of made you reach a decision?

Tebelelo: I think having a conversation with people. So I think a big part of democracy is that we have to create a culture of discourse, a healthy engagement amongst our peers with people everywhere.

Naomi: She also re-read all the manifestos of the parties she considered voting for and used a process of elimination to decide.

Tebelelo: We are essentially hiring these people to do the job of leading the country and governing. I don’t know. I don’t know if speaking about Issues that interest young people is enough. Them being new, having young people, uh, being colourful, presenting as impressive, is not good enough to deserve our vote.

Naomi: Okay, so she’s not voting for any of the new parties. That means she’s voting for ANC, right?

Tebelelo: The ANC doesn’t deserve our vote by virtue of being here for many years.

Naomi: Despite her misgivings about the ANC, in the end, she settled on the devil she knows over the devil she doesn’t.

Tebelelo: With the ANC, we can see what we can currently improve. We don’t have to make an experiment with our vote and with our country only because we are so disillusioned with the current political party.

Naomi: So that’s one vote for the ANC. But the other young people we heard from, even though they don’t know who they’ll cast a vote for, they’re not willing to give the ANC another opportunity.

Temica: They only notice us when it’s time for voting and they’re quite selfish and not do, not doing what is best for like the country as a whole.

Sikelela: I think the current leadership has had a fair chance to lead the country. At this point, I think it’s time for the current leading political party to go.

Siya: We really need to give other parties a chance at leadership. Let’s at least see what they are going to do with the power.

Naomi: The Electoral Commission of South Africa stated that over 27 million South Africans registered to vote for the upcoming election. What the turnout will be, we don’t know. But that’s the highest number of registered voters since the dawn of South Africa’s democracy 30 years ago. The Electoral Commission is hoping for a 70 per cent voter turnout, significantly higher than 66 per cent in the previous election.

And they believe that young voters are going to be the ones driving that increase. As for me, I still don’t know. But I am sure of one thing. I’ll be thinking of my vote as an employment contract, focusing on answering this question: who will do the job best?

Lesedi: This episode was produced by Radio Workshop. Rob Rosenthal and I edited this podcast. Naomi Grewan reported and produced the story. Our managing producer is Jo Jackson, additional production assistants from Tinyiko Mathe, sound engineering by Naomi Grewan, Jo Jackson, and Mike Rahfaldt. A special thank you to the team at Activate Change Drivers and to the young reporters who lent their voices to the story. Abigail Maedza. Ncumani Solomon, Sikelela Rollom, Siya Mokoena, and Temica Bonn.

Original music by Qhamani Sambu at Edible Audio in Cape Town. Archived footage courtesy of the BBC, SABC, Associated Press, and Usiletlela Uxolo, performed by the ANC Choir. This episode would not have been possible without the support of the Constitutionalism Fund.

Find out more about who we are and how to support us at RadioWorkshop.org.