The Stories That Define Us

The Stories That Define Us
Author Clinton Chauke documents some of the sentiments of his generation in his book, Born in chains: The diary of an angry ‘born free’, in which he argues that his generation is still very much trapped by the enduring tendrils of the oppressive system that preceded them: “To be born free, to me, comes with a double meaning. It’s a term that a lot of people like to use, freely, forgetting its implications and connotations. That’s why I put the inverted commas there in the title, because I don’t really believe I was born free. If you look at South Africa, poverty is a very sad reality for many. Our poverty comes from racism, and racism locks out talent, oppressed people can’t express themselves.”

This sense of disillusionment is habitually portrayed by the media and public opinion in a negative light, positioning youth as both threat and problem. Negative portrayals are by no means a modern phenomenon though; people have always loved to discredit the young. In The Winter’s Tale, Shakespeare reflects: “I would there were no age between ten and three-and-twenty, or that youth would sleep out the rest; for there is nothing in the between but getting wenches with child, wronging the ancientry, stealing, fighting”. In South Africa, people often express their fears about the power of young people as a disgruntled group, referring to them as a “ticking time bomb” that will destroy the country, and all of us along with it, should they ‘explode”

This fear of imminent explosion – the question that often ripples about why we have not yet had an uprising – demonstrates that, for all the jargon of being ‘born free’, we know in our bones that young South Africans are a generation trapped by the legacies of our brutal past.

And yet there is something extraordinarily positive about our young people. Not the fatuous hope we hold onto when some young person defies all their circumstances to achieve incredible feats, but rather the hope that exists in the immense potential of young people’s powerful, sensationseeking, risk-taking brains.

The very characteristics that make us so frightened of their potential to destroy are what give them the potential to create.

The brain development of young people is one of the stories with which many people are not familiar. This is why we draw attention to it in this issue of the Human Factor, together with the many other stories told by young people themselves – through their art and their reflections.

The Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie warns: “The single story creates stereotypes and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”

Luthando - Bold and Brave

Itried to fit in, as all teenagers do,” Luthando Mzilikazi told us when we interviewed her for our ‘Youth Create Change’ resources a few years ago. She was 25 years old then. “My mom worked two jobs, so I had a lot of time on my own. I did a lot of things that I probably shouldn’t have done. I got sucked into the BlesserBlessee11 environment in Grade 10. That’s the year I fell pregnant. I was the first to fall pregnant in my street, and after me there were nine other girls.

My family only found out when I was six months along because I was too scared to tell them. The guy was nine years older. When my family finally found out, they stopped supporting me – even emotionally. Everyone was telling me to ‘abort!’ – but how do you abort at six months along? With the benefit of hindsight, I think that was the turning point of my life. That is when I decided I needed to go back to school, even though some people wanted me to quit school and go work at Shoprite to fund my baby. My gran was one of the very few people who never judged me.

I might have been on a different trajectory if I hadn’t had these experiences. Had I not fallen pregnant at 15, and given birth at 16, I think I would’ve continued in the arts. But I don’t think I would have met the fantastic people I have met – really high-impact leaders who have changed the way I think. I don’t think I would’ve realised how much strength, resilience and perseverance I have. I don’t think I would’ve wanted to be bold and brave. I would’ve been a gypsy somewhere, smoking weed and being free. I think I would have continued thinking that life owes me an experience. Instead, I have truly lived the experience – and it’s so much more potent and so much more impactful than it would have been if I had enacted the artistic character in myself.

When I think of what unlocks potential, for me it was having the responsibility of another human being who was fully dependent on me, whose eyes are fixed on me as a role model – someone who is going to teach him about life… That created a mindshift for me.”

“You don’t choose challenges, challenges choose you.”

Luthando Siyamthanda Mzilikazi
Business Development Manager at Allan Gray in her late 20s

“You don’t choose challenges, challenges choose you.”

Luthando Siyamthanda Mzilikazi
Business Development Manager at Allan Gray in her late 20s


Luthando’s is a story of two brains: one with a matured prefrontal cortex urging safety and security (“get a job, find a way to support yourself, resign yourself that your mistake has absorbed your life chances”); the other, the dynamic and evolving prefrontal cortex of youth (“this cannot be it, there must be more, I will take the risk”).

The late maturation of the prefrontal cortex (see page 29) means that the very things we wish young people would do – or the ‘sensible’ decisions we want them to make – are precisely what they are not equipped to do. Their highly sensitive reward centre leads them to calculate risk very differently from adults, not necessarily downplaying the riskiness of situations, but over-valuing the rewards that they will experience. In effect, their biology pushes them to seek out and stimulate this reward centre via risk-taking and sensation-seeking.

Their social-mindedness means that their dopamine hits are even harder and more powerful when they involve social recognition and status. This means peer group responses are hugely influential, which is why we see phenomena like ‘Blessers’ and why peer pressure is such a powerful force in young people’s lives.

But it’s also a force that we can harness. In her book Join the Club: How Peer Pressure can Transform the World, Tina Rosenburg shows just how powerful peer pressure can be in shaping positive behaviours. Her case study on the teen antismoking programme ‘Rage Against the Haze’ shows that rather than moralising with young people, we can harness their innate desire to feel powerful and to push back at societal constructions by creating opportunities for them to test out these strategies against social challenges. This has been one of the great successes of the global environmental movement too – creating opportunities for risky, expressive, creative demonstrations.

Lance - Swapping the zoo for the waiting place

Istarted at Belgravia High, which was a nice school for me because I met different people there,” says Lance van Eyslend, from Bonteheuwel. “I got sports that you wouldn’t normally get at your average Bonteheuwel school, like tennis, hockey and golf. That was really fun for me. My downfall was that I started selling drugs when I was 15 at my school. For some reason I thought it was cool to sell drugs there because I saw my friends doing it and it seemed like a good way to make some money. That’s how I got expelled.

A couple of months later, when the new year started, my mom enrolled me at Bonteheuwel High. I thought it was going to be better, but turns out I was wrong. It was the worst decision of my life because I wouldn’t call that a school; I would call it a zoo. People don’t pay attention in class; they run up and down the corridors and bunk classes and smoke at school. There’s always trouble with gangsters at the school too. Children stab each other and fight with the teachers especially. I dropped out when I got there because I saw that it was not a learning environment.

I decided to leave because my report card kept coming in and I was getting 1s and 0s and that’s not me; usually I was a top student. But, since there were so many things distracting me, I couldn’t learn. I told my parents: ‘This school is not for me. I’m so sorry to do this to you guys again, but I’m going to have to drop out.’

I regret that decision every day of my life. Every day I wake up and it’s the same thing: rap, smoke, play soccer, repeat. I regret it because I won’t have that opportunity again.”

“We’re in Bonteheuwel. It’s very corrupt and there’s a lot of gangsterism. Children get indoctrinated by the wrong people. They throw their lives away for nothing and get themselves killed. I don’t know why they do it, though. I wouldn’t do it. I think it’s stupid. I try to avoid it, because there’s nothing in it for me. I would just be putting myself on the playing field to get killed. I don’t want to do that. I want to do more with my life than just become a gangster and stand on corners and play dice for money.”

Lance van Eysland, 18 years old. He dropped out of school at the end of Grade 9.

“We’re in Bonteheuwel. It’s very corrupt and there’s a lot of gangsterism. Children get indoctrinated by the wrong people. They throw their lives away for nothing and get themselves killed. I don’t know why they do it, though. I wouldn’t do it. I think it’s stupid. I try to avoid it, because there’s nothing in it for me. I would just be putting myself on the playing field to get killed. I don’t want to do that. I want to do more with my life than just become a gangster and stand on corners and play dice for money.”

Lance van Eysland, 18 years old. He dropped out of school at the end of Grade 9.


Lance and his friends are still stuck: “Most of the time I think, ‘Will we be stuck here forever? Society will draw us into the dangers of the world, like gangsterism. Will we be part of it or will we be the ones that get away?’ That’s the question we all ask ourselves. What will we be in 10 years from now? Will we still all be together? Or will we lose one to the system?”

In South Africa, the youthful hope of a bright and beautiful future comes up against the harsh realities of emerging adulthood: dropping out of school or getting stuck there; leaving home or feeling trapped there; finding work or hustling on the side to try and make ends meet; trying to make something of themselves as they try find themselves. Page 33 highlights some of the struggles unique to the South African context that young people must overcome – at the same time they have to navigate the everyday psychosocial tasks of adolescence.

What is particularly dangerous are the effects of toxic stress on their developing brains. While adults can process bursts of cortisol (the stress hormone) in a few hours, young people may take much longer; this can affect the ways in which their brains make their millions of neural connections, and the pathways through the brain that are being strengthened through myelination. It is also why substance use is so dangerous to their developing brains.

Worryingly, in a recent survey, 71% of teens reported having had a binge-drinking episode in the past month.12 Teen brains are much more susceptible to getting hooked on the dopamine hits from substances, making them far more likely to fall into addiction – at the same time their brains are far more vulnerable to the negative effects of these substances.

Siyabonga - We all have dreams

Ididn’t do well in matric. Actually, I failed Grade 12,” shares Siyabonga Mbaba. “But I didn’t give up on life. I decided to do something that would help me to grow as an individual and help my family at the same time. I looked for a job, but I couldn’t get one because I didn’t qualify. After volunteering at an NGO for a bit, I was at home for three months doing nothing – just being depressed, thinking about life, hating myself and the way I grew up.

I’ve learnt that in black schools they teach children to become slaves. They teach them how to become employees, to work for someone; but when you go to Model C schools or to white schools, they teach children how to start their own businesses and become independent. That’s one of the things I hate about school, specifically black schools in the townships. The problem is that in the township, after people study and start their own companies and become successful, they go and stay in the suburbs… So in the township we don’t have positive role models. Those guys who steal cars are some people’s only inspiration, showing that to be successful in life, you have to steal cars and do that kind of stuff.

The transition out of school was a good experience for me. I don’t think you need an education to become successful – it’s all in your brain; it’s how you think. Some people become successful because they’ve studied and whatever, and some people because of the drive they have – they have a vision for their lives. I wouldn’t say I had a role model. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to start my own thing. I want to be the mentor that I never had.”


Siyabonga started a non-profit company, Iphuphalami Improvements. Iphupha means ‘dreams’ and lami (like iphuphalam), ‘my dream’. “We all have dreams, we all want to become someone in life, we all want to be famous, have degrees and big cars and be celebrities. Everyone has different dreams. We do art exhibitions as well as business expos. We want to help those who have dreams,” explains Siyabonga.

One of the fascinating aspects of adolescent brains is just how well-adapted they are to the particular realities of being young. Young people are hardwired to deal with problems; to take on new, unfamiliar challenges. Aligning themselves with certain points of view is part of defining their identity, which is why it jars when older people say young people are apathetic.

“Young people are not apathetic. They’re deeply political,” says Youth Lab’s Managing Director Pearl Pillay. “We cover all provinces, as far as we can – and we’ve not met any of these apathetic young people. Nobody has ever said to us, ‘We don’t care.’” In fact, she argues, young people’s everyday existence in South Africa “is politics”. The problem is that young people just don’t know how to translate their knowledge of the daily ins-and-outs of their own lives into change on a systems level. “You have to take three taxis to get to school; each one is overloaded, the roads are bad, and you’re being sexually harassed by the driver… but without political education you don’t know what to do with that knowledge. Young people are very engaged; they just don’t know what to do to make that relationship between your community and politics work. The problem, too, is that the people in power just aren’t hearing young people.”

David - An inexperienced doctor discovers he possesses something valuable

Areally useful comment someone made to me early on was that I had an instinct for public health, and that I could see things differently, which was something I had never realised. That was really, really helpful – I guess I was a bit intimidated by the number of letters behind people’s names in terms of degrees and specialisations and here I was, fresh out of medical school.

What I realised – in time – was that relative inexperience was a blessing; it had worth. I could look at things through different eyes. I could really struggle to understand what was going on, instead of trying to locate it in a particular academic theory or what others had said about it.

That’s helped me as I have looked for people to work with in my career – I haven’t necessarily looked for people with many degrees behind their names. I look for people who are willing to think differently, to look at a problem differently, and to carve out their own path. It stemmed from someone who looked at me and was willing to affirm what I was bringing to the table even though I didn’t have all the qualifications.” Dr David Harrison, CEO, DGMT


Our underlying hope with this issue of the Human Factor is that you see just how differently young people’s brains work: how their brains are designed to make them brave; to take the risks that we, as adults, wouldn’t dare to take; to be emotional, to feel things deeply and to be driven to action by those strong emotional currents. And that is how society changes.

As illustrated above, the problem or opportunity with hearing stories about yourself is that you tend to believe them – and then you make them real.

What if we acknowledge that young people’s ability to make the most sensible decisions in the moment of instant response is not yet perfectly developed; that they are hardwired to be erratic and impetuous. From this perspective, it falls on us then to ask ourselves: How can we create the space for them to think things through? And what are the possibilities they will help us see that our less flexible brains can’t see?

What if we were to contain our own fears and stop ourselves from telling young people that they are social liabilities, but rather, that they are assets of great value in progressing our society? What if we recognised that how they navigate their 20 years of youth (from the ages of 15 to 35) will determine much about what we, as a nation, will become?

The Stories That Define Us
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