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S. Africa’s Young Bored by Election

May 14, 1999

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa (AP) _ Talk to 18-year-old Vuyo Knight as South Africa’s second all-race election approaches, and the word ``party″ has a whole different meaning: girls, music, drinking and drugs.

Voting? He didn’t even register.

In a campaign worlds away from the euphoria of 1994, when the first all-race election swept away apartheid and voting became an act of joyful liberation, many young South Africans are showing little enthusiasm for politics.

The contrast is even greater compared to 1976, when a generation of students launched violent uprisings in Soweto that drew world attention to the evils of apartheid and marked a turning point in the struggle against white minority rule.

``They have different heroes now,″ said Sifiso Ndlovu, who was 14 then and on the front lines. ``For us, the heroes were the present leaders of the liberation struggle. For them, the heroes are different _ like Boom Shaka, Tupac Shakur and the Spice Girls.″

Only 47.7 percent of 18- to 20-year-olds have registered, according to the Independent Electoral Commission. The next category, aged 20-30, have a 77.2 percent registration rate. The percentages are actually much lower because in calculating them, the commission excluded some 3 million people of voting age _ mainly expatriates and South Africans without updated identification documents.

No voter roll was created in 1994, but surveys say 93 percent of 18-35 year olds cast ballots then, and anecdotal evidence suggests the youngest in that category turned out in force.

Political analysts say lower turnout is most likely to benefit the governing African National Congress. The ANC is expected to sweep the June 2 election, but is striving for a two-thirds majority.

The trend has observers worried.

``What appears to be a significant drop in turnout among youth is indeed troubling for a fledgling democracy,″ the Electoral Institute of South Africa said in a report.

Knight boasts he’d be ready to ``take up an AK-47″ if whites returned to power. But now, he is focusing on his dreams: a townhouse, Range Rover and high-paying job.

``You know why the majority don’t vote? They just don’t care,″ said Knight, a vocational school student. His friends are worried about other things, like partying, girls and guns.

``My mom tells me when I go out to party, `Don’t get shot,′ and `Do you have condoms?′ ″ says Knight, sitting at a food court at the Carleton Center mall, a popular hangout in the overwhelmingly black central business district.

Many young people, of course, remain committed. They are found in party youth wings, campaign rallies and campuses, like the University of Witwatersrand, where 23-year-old Tumelo Tshabalala is studying chemistry.

``Democracy should be a way of life,″ he said. ``Voting tomorrow won’t correct the legacy of oppression, but people should be involved in democracy.″

Young voter apathy appears to cut across all races. Like their parents, many young whites feel they have less of a stake in the country now that it is being run by the African National Congress and the emphasis is on giving opportunity to blacks.

``I just thought it was a waste of time to register,″ said Jason Geldmacher, 19, whose family is thinking about joining the white flight to Australia. ``I don’t even like this country.″

Apathy alone is not to blame.

Confusion about where and how to register took its toll, along with the scheduling of registration periods during school exams and vacations. Some fault the lack of voter education, crucial in a brand-new democracy, where tens of millions of people never voted before 1994.

But Julie Ballington, a researcher at the Electoral Institute of South Africa says apathy is strong among young blacks who have little memory of apartheid. They grow easily disillusioned while the grim daily truths of poverty, constant crime, joblessness and lack of decent housing dominate the landscape. They lack the patience for improvements of their elders, who saw people like President Nelson Mandela spend decades in jail for their beliefs.

``We don’t need to fight. We’ve got everything we need,″ said Benny Khumalo, 18, sitting with his friend Knight in front of Baby Jake’s Diner.

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