Does parliament have an age problem?
There are severals reasons young people don’t take parliament seriously. The language is laced with jargon, opposition parties whistle and yawn at each other and, as we saw last year, there’s the occasional scuffle that ends with MPs throwing their shoes at riot police . But one of the biggest hurdles in getting young people to engage with parliament is the lack of youth representation.
In late 2012, the president was in parliament with opposition parties doing what he has been for the last three years: answering questions about his R250 million homestead in Nkandla. Former Democratic Alliance parliamentary leader Lindiwe Mazibuko asked Zuma whether it was ethical for him to spend such a large amount on his private residence when nearby communities still lacked access to clean, running water. As always, the president was evasive—asking why those around Nkandla should be “isolated” and “why other areas should be more important than others”—before paternalistically dismissing Mazibuko as ntombazane (Zulu for “little girl”). Zuma’s point had been made loud and clear: sit down, child. I’m the adult here. The response forms a part of what is starting to seem like an ageist parliament. In fact, a little over a month ago, we asked EFF spokesperson Mbuyiseni Ndlozi if he felt younger MPs are afforded the same respect their older peers are and he was scathing in his response.
“There’s a lot of ageism in parliament,” said Ndlozi. “It’s because the entire parliamentary practice privileges specific conducts that are associated with elderhood,” he concluded. And he’s right, you know. There are times when parliamentary sittings are blighted by older MPs insistence on being respected on the grounds of their age rather than their parliamentary status (where all members are equal). Just last year, National Assembly speaker Baleka Mbete was spitting venom at the EFF’s Floyd Shivambu for… err… speaking out of turn. She told Shivambu that she’s “not his peer” and that he was betraying his “African” upbringing. Shivambu, rightly pointed out that Mbete is “not his mother” and, irrespective of age, all MPs are equal.
The average age of parliament’s representatives is 50
But if the ruling party is ageist in its speech, the rest of parliament displays its ageism in its elected leaders. With the exception of Malema, the Democratic Alliance’s Yusuf Cassim and handful of other MPs, parliament is largely made up of people for whom the term “youth” is nothing more than a long, nostalgic trip down memory lane. The average age of parliament’s representatives is 50 – not hard to believe when you take a look at most parties’ leaders. Care to guess how old Helen Zille is? She’s 63. And the IFP’s Mangosuthu Buthelezi? He turns 86 this year. President Zuma is 72 years old. This in a country where the average age of the population is just under 25. Is it any wonder that the EFF, whose president is 33, is gaining so much traction among youth? Pre-election surveys reflected the party’s popularity among the youth (one survey revealing that 38% of young South Africans would vote for the party) and they later won six percent of the national vote. That’s no small feat for a party that was founded a little under 10 months before the general election.
Maybe we’re the change parliament is waiting for
Many of us subscribe to the fallacious idea that politics is reserved for men and women much older and experienced than us. But maybe there’s something to learn from the EFF’s emergence and MPs such as Yusuf Cassim (aged 24 – the youngest MP in South African history). With a population as young as ours, maybe we shouldn’t be waiting for an older figure to solve our problems. Maybe we are the one’s we’ve been waiting for.
Live from Parliament casts a youth lens on parliament and government, covering committees, policy-making, MPs, and the sitting of actual Parliament. Our team of youth journalists will be reporting Live from Parliament every week in partnership with the People’s Assembly and Indigo Trust.
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