Reflections on the situation of South African Youth

Young people in South Africa today are negotiating a complex reality wedged between a brutal apartheid history which they did not personally experience, a post-apartheid era where poverty and violence are the norm, and the knowledge that they will inherit an uncertain future. For the most-part as young people engage with South Africa, the country perceives them through the lens of being ‘problems’ to be solved. They are violent or apathetic, uneducated, diseased and unemployed. Those that deem to speak on their behalf are prone to irresponsible and many times nonsensical outbursts; and the nation struggles to divorce the individual political leaders from the broader young population. For the most part, they are a generation that South Africa believes it must control and mitigate against in case they bring the country to ruin. It is crucial, though, to acknowledge that the way we talk and think about young people has more to do, as Durham argues, with the “social landscape” of South Africa than about young people themselves.[1]From the 1970s onward, young people were acknowledged as critical players in bringing about social transformation and the end of apartheid in South Africa, yet in the post-apartheid era the notion of young-people’s agency to contribute meaningfully to building the nation is almost non-existent in our dealings with them.

For example the seminal Youth 2000[2] report has only one paragraph that interrogates the social engagement of young people, revealing that churches and sports were the two most significant spaces in which young people engaged with their communities. The fact that young people’s participation in their communities is not generally considered a factor to be measured reveals a lot about the way in which South Africans conceptualise the place of young people in our society. Investigating how young South Africans contribute to society, rather than only how they are ‘problems to be solved’ can create space and allow for the establishment of mechanisms to embrace the potential and value that young people bring to the table. Through examining the ways in which young people engage in their communities, their desires and hopes, and the ways in which they feel they can and/or cannot contribute, we can begin to unlock mechanisms that could be used effectively to develop young people and connect them to opportunity. While individual NGOs often measure their impact on the life-chances of young people that come through their programmes it would be useful to start measuring the impact of young people’s actions beyond themselves and into the broader community.

Perhaps the greatest example of the transformative power of youth leadership in the 21st century has been the protest action over the last two months that have radically reshaped the politics of the entire Middle East. Through highly connected networks across Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain and Libya, young people have shared knowledge, tactics and information about how best to stand up to the regimes that have had a stranglehold on the region for decades. Although social media has been hailed as a key mechanism through which these communities of young people connected, it was the content of the knowledge they shared and the example they set which fundamentally shifted the region. If ever the world doubted that young people could be a substantial force for positive change, they have only to look to the north of Africa to what extraordinary change a generation can bring about.

In order to move South Africa beyond a single narrative of its youth – that they are unruly, uneducated, unemployed and violent – we have to start asking ourselves and our communities what contribution young people are, and could be, making. The DGMT Leadership for a Winning Nation portfolio aims to begin shifting these perceptions and ultimately the place of young people in our society. During apartheid young people recognised that they could, and must, change the way in which the country was running. They did not simply accept that they would be a lost generation, but stood up and fought for a better quality of life that would create and provide opportunities for all. More recently, the young people that took to the streets of Tunisia and Egypt realised that by making themselves heard, by refusing to accept that it was not their place to change their countries’ destinies have shaken the foundations of the Middle East. It is this realisation – that young people can be powerful innovators and leaders for their communities and the broader country – that underlies the strategy of the Leadership for a Winning Nation portfolio. This portfolio aims to support initiatives that promote young people as agents of their own, and their communities’, development; that shift the social perception of the role of young people in public life; that give young people access to influence; and to create a unique national intervention to develop a cohort of exceptional young people working together to drive public innovation.

[1] Durham, D. (2000), ‘Youth and the Social Imagination in Africa: Introduction to Parts 1 and 2,’ Anthropological Quarterly, 73(3): 113-120.
[2] Community Agency for Social Enquiry (2000). Youth 2000. Report prepared for the Royal Netherlands Embassy.
[3] See: Agulanna, C. (2006). Democracy and the Crisis of Leadership in Africa. Journal of Scoial, Political and Economic Studies 31(3): 255-264. Ayittey, G. (1998). Africa in Chaos. London: Macmillan Press. Rotberg, R. (1998). Leadership Factor: The Political Dimensions of Africa’s Economic Development, Harvard International Review 21(2):72-75.
[4] Von Doeppe, P. (2009).  The Leadership Variable in Africa: Situating Structure and Agency in Governance Trajectories. Leaders, Elites and Coalitions Research Programme.
[5] de Ver, H. L. (2008). Leadership, Politics and Development: A Literature Survey. Leaders, Elites and Coalitions Research Programme.
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