South Africa held a first major voter registration drive on Saturday in a bid to tackle widespread apathy ahead of national elections next year.

Polling stations across the country opened their doors to let would-be-voters register or check their details as part of a two-day exercise to woo electors back to the ballots after years of dwindling participation.

"I'm hoping that these elections are going to change South Africa, because if it keeps going downhill there is no point me staying here, I'll have to emigrate overseas," said Oliver Curlewis, an 18-year-old high school student who registered to vote for the first time in an affluent suburb of Johannesburg.

Poor services, a prolonged energy crisis and a buckling economy have left many South Africans disillusioned with their government.

Voter numbers have shrunk every five years, since South Africans jubilantly queued to cast their ballot in the first democratic elections in 1994.

At the last elections in 2019, only 49 percent of those of voting age showed up on election day.

Young people in particular have stayed away.

In 2019, only 15 percent of all eligible voters aged 18 to 19 and 30 percent of 20-to-29-year-olds cast a vote.

"Calling out the 14 million unregistered youth -- time to step up!" the electoral commission wrote on social media on Saturday, urging young people to "gather your squad and hit a registration station".

No appeal 

Not all were heeding the call.

At the school where Curlewis registered, chairs laid out to accommodate queues sat empty, as bored political representatives chatted and played board games at party stalls set up outside.

While it was possible to sign up online, a few hours before closing time just over 30 people had visited the station, which serves a ward of more than 2,000 residents.

"I'm just asking myself, is it really worth it?" said Noluthando Tshazibane, 20, who was shopping with a friend at a nearby mall.

The ruling African National Congress (ANC) once led by Nelson Mandela has seen its once-stellar standing mauled by allegations of corruption and mismanagement.

In power since the end of apartheid, polls suggest it could see its vote drop below 50 percent and lose its overall parliament majority for the first time in 2024.

Yet, disaffection with the ANC has not directly translated into support for the opposition.

Walking past another polling station off a busy shopping street in Johannesburg's rundown city centre, a 26-year-old medical student, who preferred not to give her name, said she was not going to register.

"I do not know who to vote for," she said, complaining that South African politics was dominated by "old people" and no party appealed to her.

The electoral commission said last month the vote will be held between May and August next year.

"Go out into the community and campaign as hard as possible so that we can show that the ANC is the only party that can continue governing this country," President Cyril Ramaphosa told party activists as he visited a polling station in Soweto in the morning.