Apathetic, entitled and ignorant are favoured adjectives when it comes to describing South Africa’s youth. But that couldn’t be farther from the truth. Here’s a glimpse into what it’s really like to be young in SA today.
Every June, producers of television and radio shows, newspaper editors and social media managers scramble to put together Youth Day messaging that shows that young people are valued, important and have something to say. Then, promptly on July 1st, regular programming resumes and we go back to living the reality of being a youth in this country.
To be young in South Africa is to know that poverty, inequality and unemployment aren’t just fancy words used in policy documents — they’re a stark, daily descriptor of your life’s experiences. We’re used to reading articles that speak to the power young people have: the potential to improve our lives, fix the future and change the world, and I should offer my apologies in advance, dear reader, because this is not one of those articles. If we’re going to talk honestly about the state of youth in South Africa, we should be able to do so without pushing aside our hopelessness, our frustration and our sear-ing hot rage.
This article comes in a time where an actual pandemic is sweeping across the world, revealing the ugliest parts of society that have become impossible to hide. In the US, Black Lives Matter is showing the world what happens when white supremacy joins forces with capitalism, institutionalises and is allowed to fester for hundreds of years. At the frontlines of these protests are young black people whose desperation for equality and justice has meant risking their lives and health in order to orchestrate what will be the eventual demise of racist America as we know it.
Here at home, the situation is different. Shouts of Collins Khosa, Sibusiso Amos and Adane Emmanuel echo through our military-patrolled streets, drowned out by the immense dread of knowing that the people who are meant to pro-tect you are the very same ones who will kill you. If you’re a woman in South Africa, you learned that truth long ago, and, Tshegofatso Pule, Karabo Mokoena, Uyinene Mrwetyana, Leighandre Jegels and the thousands of other women who were murdered or raped in the last year stand as tragic re-minders that for women, black women in particular, South Africa is a different kind of hell.
Yet despite the constant battle for survival, young South Africans are told that we’re lazy, we’re ungrateful, we want handouts, we’re apathetic and directionless. The same young South Africans who, standing at the forefront of Rhodes Must Fall and Fees Must Fall, learned that teargas and rubber bul-lets are more than the scars our parents and grandparents bore from Apartheid — they’re our scars of democracy, too.
We hear politicians coming to our communities promising us the world in return for our votes, yet when citizens ask for basic needs like water, shelter or a decent job, we are told that we’re entitled and ungrateful
When young people have asked about the lack of repre-sentation in parliament, we have been told that parliament isn’t a créche (from the same government who celebrates the youth of 45-year-olds). When we have asked for youth policies that reflect our community contexts and respond to our challenges in ways that are inclusive, we were given a copy and paste document of old policies (the Department of Women, Youth and Persons with Disabilities is serious about non-delivery) and then, when we decide that this system does not serve us and we disengage, well, restart this paragraph and repeat until you turn blue in the face.
How then, do we win? Over the last few years, I have been privileged to work to improve youth participation and visibility in policy work and community development, and I have learned so many lessons about the youth in our country that are worth sharing here. These may not offer strong solutions on how to fix the myriad of issues we face, but it will at least allow us to understand that youth in South Af-rica are complex, varied and sometimes contradictory, but still deserve to be heard and taken seriously, because of, not in spite of those things.
First, youth are not apathetic. This is such a classic go-to when our leaders want to dismiss youth representation. We are perceived as people who don’t care about socio- economic issues, who opt for “instant gratification” rather than wanting to see our communities improve. None of this could be further from the truth. In every community protest we see on the news, at the forefront of every viral social media campaign, in every community workshop or municipal meeting, there are young people.
Young people who understand that we don’t live in isola-tion, that we all have a duty to each other to care about the communities we come from, and who show up whenever it’s time for citizens to use their power. The next time you talk about how youth don’t care, think about students across our country, who are more likely to have tips on how to treat teargas, than stories about being able to graduate without trauma.
Second, youth are experts. Experience is never associated with youth, but something that policy experts the world over constantly forget is that no one understands the peo-ple you are governing more than the people themselves. There aren’t any number of degrees in the world that can make someone an expert on our own lived experiences. No one knows or understands our communities and cultures better than we do, and as young people who have lived through very specific moments; no one knows what it’s like to be young in South Africa better than us.
If we are serious about youth participation in our country, we need to value that expertise far more than we current-ly do. Youth are not tokens for decorating your conference venues with when it’s time to spend that leftover budget. We are experts in our own right and have ideas on how to change the society we live in. These ideas have value and they deserve to be heard.
Finally, youth are entitled. This is always thrown around as some kind of strange rebuttal to young people demanding basic human rights and asking for the promises of democ-racy to be fulfilled. Why is it a bad thing to feel entitled to what was promised to you? We hear politicians coming to our communities promising us the world in return for our votes, yet when citizens ask for basic needs like water, shel-ter or a decent job, we are told that we’re entitled and un-grateful.
Our history as a country is constantly used as a way to guilt us into not demanding better from our democracy. Young people are asking for an education that can actually equip us to succeed in the world, an economy that treats us with dignity and helps us all progress, and a society that won’t punish people for being victims of a system we had no hand in creating. Part of holding our leaders accountable means being proud of the entitlements our democracy gave to us, and being able to live in a country that allows us to demand those entitlements.
Youth Month is over, but it’s important to always remember that young people in 2020 are no different to the youth of ’76 (no matter how much they try to convince us otherwise). We have shown that resilience, passion and commitment ex-ist despite living in a society that constantly works against us. I hope that we will soon start on the journey of better un-derstanding the millions of people that make up the youth population in our country, and learn how to value and pri-oritise youth in ways that can actually impact our lives, far more than platitudes and fancy hashtags ever will.