And the Young Person Said: “I am South Africa”

The failure to desegregate the group of people that we refer to as the youth leads to many accepted half-baked truths, sometimes supported by statistics, about the livelihoods and participation of these people. Apathy – a word generally used to reason why young people do not participate in masses (about two thirds of the South African population is below 35 years of age) – has, to an extent, been traced to the comfort that young people enjoy in a democratic state, resulting in no need for activism and/or patriotism. This is not the whole truth.

South Africa’s Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) hosted a summit between 9 and 12 September in 2014 where the aim was to consult students in university governance, members of youth-based civil society organisations, leaders of youth political party wings and umbrella youth structures on ways to attract young people to the electoral process. This summit was to result in what is to be called the National Youth Agenda, a set of ideals from which we will judge our progress with engaging young people. The agenda was to be entirely engineered by young people.

The origin of apathy was found not to be comfort that bred complacency, but rather party politics and an electoral system that does not speak to different kinds of young people. Some young people had stated that the view of a “born free” as someone with better access to opportunities was not what their lives were, and a learned helplessness had made them sit out of electoral processes. There was also a feeling from some young people that the phrase “youth focus” and variations thereof were used just to spark participation from them but never really yielded tangible results.

The delegates responsible for setting up the National Youth Agenda committed to viewing how factors intersect and contribute to young people sitting out of electoral processes, but also, there was a general understanding that patriotism had to be redefined as a commitment and love for fellow citizens, rather than blind loyalty.

The delegates to the summit suggested the following to develop a commitment to youth participation:

  1. Increasing youth participation

Youth wings in political parties ought to champion the proportional representation of young people in parliamentary lists, not only for personal career and/or leadership development, but to position themselves well enough to advance the mission of the youth with tact and bravery. Chapter 9 institutions should either develop youth directorates or strive to get younger people in their leadership in order to gain some perspective on how to engage groups of young people where it is necessary.

  1. Enhanced, expanded and continuous civic education

National governance needs to do an about-turn towards results-orientation in their work, so that the positive work can be seen and felt by the most marginalised of groups. People will continue to vote for hope, and more young people will continue to sit out. Civic education on voting, elections and democracy needs to be made a part of the Life Orientation programme, meaning that basic education will also need to work efficiently as young people will not believe they have rights that matter if they cannot see them at school and at home.

  1. Using multiple media platforms and technology

The 2011 census indicated that over 50% of South Africans did not have access to internet – not on their cell phones, not at school, not at work, so even if everyone with internet access saw this blog, we would still miss more than half the country. Therefore overreliance on social media to engage youth, which excludes youth without access to the internet, may be misplaced. It is easy for people to feel neglected when they get no information except when they are needed to positively affect voting numbers. If we are to rely on social media, we ought to be breathing down the necks of relevant government departments to give electricity and broadband penetration to nearly 100% of the country. Outreach programmes ought to be assessed for impact after being executed, and changed in consultation with the participants and those that choose not to participate. This is to avoid hypothesising on participation, which will result in further neglect of young people.

  1. Recognising the past

This was said to be the most important of issues, especially observing how some young people from marginalised and excluded groups have still not felt the effects of a democracy. The struggle beyond 1994 is access, which is income-based, and young people require the financial assistance through employment and support on entrepreneurial projects. There can never be a real change in how South Africa functions without aspirations for overall economic security. Delegates also urged each other to speak frankly about how the past affects their lives and memories inherited that shape how young South Africans relate to each other.

Being there and seeing varying experiences of young people shaping an agenda to be used by a Chapter 9 institution was wonderful. Different ideas from leadership in different sectors where young people are actively trying to make a difference helped us rethink how young people can be reached out to. The South African youth never had a leadership crisis, and South Africa is in safe hands if we can harness it properly. The major task now is proper implementation of the youth agenda, but we may have a good place to start.

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