South Africa, in its current state, is a country that has a long history of colonial rule and institutionalised racism that shaped the “ground zero” of the country’s democracy project. Apartheid – the system of divide and conquer – that separated the South African population in four distinct racial groups under a white-supremacist governance structure, organised the social dynamics of South Africans. Meaning that South Africa’s governance system under the National Party was not only racist, but also sexist, homophobic, ableist and ageist. This became democratic South Africa’s initial state, and a lot needs to be unlearned socially and by the use of structures.
The most troubling, and unfortunately sometimes accepted, idea regarding age in the country is that the democracy project has shielded young people almost completely from the ills of separatist governance. So when there is talk of the “born free”, a title given to people that have come of age after 1994 when the country’s democratic rule started, there is a view of people with inherently better access to opportunity and service, sometimes the view is of cosmopolitan, independent young people that have fun in racially mixed circles. This is a view of a desegregated youth, a group that seems homogenous and is experiencing, to the full extent, the fruits of a democratic state.
South Africa’s population is fairly young, averaging at 25 years, and since the main project in the country shifted from attaining democracy to rather maintaining one and making it work, there had to be a focus on young people that will later be responsible of taking the country forward, because people die. The youth is the same group of people that are now told at colloquia, conferences, symposia and the like to “realise that you are not a future leader, you are a leader today”, to “stop complaining and being reliant on the state”, and to “take responsibility to move the country forward”.
However, the manner in which discourse around issues concerning young people is taking place is worrying.
Citing the hope of government to have young people, in the words of South African Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, “make South Africa a nation of entrepreneurs, innovators and producers and not just consumers”, young people in the country are wrongfully made observers to discussions on their future. The “experts” on this supposed future remains the people who have well-lived and, sometimes, are in retirement. In as much as young people should appreciate the insight given by the people who drafted and/or defend South Africa’s liberal constitution, it is time to make young people take center-stage on issues concerning their livelihoods.
What makes the urge by the older generation to have young people take their place in leadership useless, is the blindness to the manner in which discussions are conducted. In a colloquium organised by the Department of Arts and Culture and the Department of Sports and Recreation on the 18th of November 2014, with the theme “Youth of South Africa: Our Time is Now”, a speaker addressing the student attendees said “I was 14 years old in 1976, I cannot lead you, and you must take your place now.” Ironically, this very person was the one given the platform to address young people, and the youngest person on the panel for the event was 43 years old.
After the panelists made opening statements on what the youth should be doing or, more actually, on the achievements so far of the democratic project, the students were allowed to ask questions, make statements or suggestions, and give comments. The biggest problem here is that the adults had already set the scene for the discussion, and their willingness to buy into these suggestions gets to determine how far the youth’s voice actually goes. The panelists’ views on where South Africa “should” be going also inform the kind of counsel given to young people making suggestions.
In that setup, one could see exactly what frustrates young people – being told to get something done in order to make your future brighter, but being an observer to discourse around your future is probably the worst thing to happen to young people who actively want to shape a country’s future. The voice of the youth can easily get drowned out in a setup where, for starters, young people themselves are not seen as expert enough to sit on a panel to discuss their own future. This setup perpetuates the same culture of reliance for expertise on the older generation that the older generation itself is begging the youth not to develop. This cannot work, at least not well. Especially with the youth being such a dynamic group as people are included in this constituency by virtue of age.
South African youth are involved heavily in civil society; they are politically aware and are entrepreneurs, innovators and producers of knowledge as it stands. “Youth participation” can no longer be used as a catch phrase to create the impression that South African youth are being taken seriously. There can never be a discussion with the youth without them, and not as spectators who can query, but as part of the groups that set the scene for interaction on the future. If the time is now, let the systems in place be used to centralise the ever-so-capable South African youth.