An open letter to university students: your vote matters

27 July 2016 | Story by Newsroom
Voting day in South Africa. Photo HelenOnline via Wikimedia Commons.
Voting day in South Africa. Photo HelenOnline via Wikimedia Commons.

Dear university students,

It seems like the world is in a frenzy of voting right now, from the recent vote in Britain to exit the European Union to the US choosing its next president – who may be a former reality TV star.

Closer to home, there's a vote coming up to select the new chair of the African Union, who'll replace Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma. And on August 3 it'll be the turn of South Africans to elect officials – mayors, councillors and others – who will govern at the local level. The day has been declared a public holiday so that South Africans are able to exercise their right to vote in these municipal elections.

I am writing this letter to encourage you, university students, to go out and vote.

A fundamental right

When I was your age in the 1970s I was not permitted to vote. It was a right denied to all black South Africans. The prospect of voting then seemed quite remote. Now here you are, some of you just having reached the voting age, and what an exciting time this is to cast your vote!

In the past year you have rocked the political establishment, forcing universities and government to pay attention to one of the fundamental rights in the constitution – that of access to education. Turning your attention to outsourced workers on campuses, you challenged universities to make a moral choice and end exploitation of such workers. You used your collective voice to make a difference. You can do so again by exercising your right to vote.

Why am I urging you to vote? Let me give you several reasons.

First, a historical one: the struggle of South Africans against colonialism, racism and apartheid was fundamentally about democratic participation and specifically the right to vote. Millions of South Africans, predominantly black, were displaced, imprisoned, persecuted, tortured and killed in the fight to make this right a reality. You owe it to all of them to vote.

Second, voting is your opportunity to express your voices about the political decisions that currently impact your lives, as well as give input into decisions that will shape your futures. Voting allows you to choose leaders who are committed to the constitutional values of dignity, justice and equity that may contribute towards the achievement of societal and personal goals.

Poor electoral decisions made now may affect you negatively for many decades to come. Voting is the way that you can show support for good policies and ideas and reject those that are not constructive. Voting is empowering.

Third, voting moves you beyond being a mere spectator and observer in South African politics to actual and effective participation in this rambunctious and messy democracy.

Fourth, by voting you are making a statement that your opinion matters. Your vote is a declaration about how elected leaders should treat those who elected them, as well as the wider electorate. In this way you are providing those who govern with an effective mandate and ensuring that they do not take your vote for granted. Your vote is your weapon against political indifference and impunity.

Fifth, you should vote because voting is not just an individual, private right; it's a collective, public resource. By voting you are contributing to South Africa's collective aspirations for a healthy and engaged democracy. Your vote is your participation in the public ritual of the committed citizen.

Sixth, your vote may be the most important contribution you can make to protecting future generations from insidious attempts to disenfranchise them. It is foolhardy to think that this may not happen in South Africa. Disenfranchisement lurks in the memories of your parents and grandparents. It has happened all around us, including in neighbouring Zimbabwe.

Finally, by voting you reserve for yourself the right and privilege to complain to your elected officials often, loudly and vociferously. This is not so if you do not bother to exercise your vote. Surely your omission deprives you of the moral authority to complain? With your vote you signal that you will hold government accountable and you are not to be taken for granted.

Youth votes matter

After the Brexit vote it was reported by some that young people, who apparently stand to lose the most from the British exit of the European Union, had not come out in significant numbers to vote on this crucial issue.

Conversely in 2008 in the US it was arguably the involvement and enthusiasm of young people, including their votes, that contributed to the election of that country's first African-American President, Barack Obama.

At the first democratic election in South Africa in 1994, which saw the election of President Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress, the percentage of people who voted in the country was high. That number has dropped significantly since then, particularly in local government elections.

You, university students, have demonstrated that you are a force to be reckoned with. I urge you to take South African election percentages higher because it matters for this democracy's health and sustainability. Your vote matters.

Opinion Penelope Andrews, Dean of Law and Professor at University of Cape Town.

This article first appeared in The Conversation, a collaboration between editors and academics to provide informed news analysis and commentary. Its content is free to read and republish under Creative Commons; media who would like to republish this article should do so directly from its appearance on The Conversation, using the button in the right-hand column of the webpage. UCT academics who would like to write for The Conversation should register with them; you are also welcome to find out more from

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