Stop ‘dissing’ our youth
More cartoons online at Ngcaweni is editor of “Sizonqoba: Outliving AIDS in Southern Africa” available at the HSRC bookstore
THE nomenclature of the crises of youth development in South Africa can be depressing – to the extent that it shunts young people from the mainstream into the margins of society where their socio-economic condition is blamed on them.
Young people in South Africa are, once again, seen as a problem, wholly responsible for their predicament of mediocre education outcomes, unemployment, the burden of disease driven by the runaway HIV incidence, growing nihilism and social exclusion.
This in spite of the country adopting a progressive national youth policy in 2015 and the signing of many multisectoral pledges like the Skills and Youth Employment Accords in 2014 facilitated by Nedlac.
This originates from our knowledge of what lies at the heart of the crises and the denial of the Marxist adage that the weight of history imposes itself on the present.
The locus of enunciation is neoliberalism which exonerates capitalism (championed by both the state and capital) for the crises of poverty, racism, alterity (being different) and the inequality it produces.
Even as there is global consensus (eg at the G20, WEF, OECD, World Bank and IMF) that the prevailing relations between capital and society are unsustainable and largely produce the prevailing inequality predicament (as dubbed by the 2002 UN report) at local level, the opposite manifests.
Instead, the blame is placed squarely on those disfavoured by prevailing capitalism’s indifference to what sustains democracy – that the majority must fully enjoy the socio-economic dividend of free society in a democratic dispensation.
Limited attention is paid to the capitalist and socio-political matrices of power that disenfranchise, dismember, distorts, dismiss, dismantle, disregard, denounce, distance, disrespect and disempower young people.
This ‘dissing’ continues unabated and has recently re-entered our political lexicon, chanted by those who occupy opposition benches in our democracy.
A set of ideas about young people in society is generated into a knowledge structure that channels our posture towards the crises of marginality and consequently, shapes our national responses.
Behavioural scientists remind us that what people say about us influences what we think of ourselves, how we relate to the world and what we eventually become.
If you grew up told you are ugly and your nickname is mubi (ugly one), your whole being will be that of mubi, influencing and shaping your relationships with the world as a mubi.
What do young people have to lose, if their socio-economic exclusion is called a “time bomb” and they are labelled a “lost generation”?
Let us briefly survey these resurrected pejoratives, starting with the dissing of young people by the official opposition during this year’s State of the Nation address debate.
We saw many young opposition members exclaiming “lost generation” in their interventions!
Even their ignorance of progressive youth development approaches and absence from the global youth development movement won’t help them escape the harsh reaction to their dissing and dismembering. Arrogance of ignorance, as Sabelo Ndlovu-Gatsheni reminds us, is as deadly as political indifference.
There is a mountain of political and academic literature on this “lost generation” debate including writings by Frederick van Zyl Slabbert, Clayton Peters and Yoliswa Makhasi. These works debunked this notion of lost generation and exposed it for what it is: neo-con construct purposely chosen to demean young people and cast them as helpless pendulums, without agency.
Young people are not lost. They don’t need to be found. They need quality education which they have been calling for; they need training and economic opportunities that locate them at the centre of transformation.
Equally, the “ticking time bomb” framing is unfortunate as it carries negative connotations. Whatever history and political theory tell us about the scourge of youth unemployment, making them responsible for the crisis of the political economy of the post colony is politically myopic.
Five years ago the African Development Bank introduced a more affirming concept of demographic dividend.
By doing so, they recognised the value of young people in society – using their numbers as strength rather than a curse or a time bomb.
The ADB’s positive outlook requires progressive youth development intervention recognising their energies and aspirations, instead of fire extinguishers and bomb squads.
The challenge for governments and politicians is how do we advance policy responses that help society realise and maximise the value of the demographic divided into a lasting legacy rather than measures that seek to contain young people given their perceived potential danger.
Some see Fees Must Fall protesters as “brats” and “agent provocateurs” destroying the system instead of activists fighting for socio-economic inclusion, in a capitalist society that constrains young people from fully enjoying the democratic dividend.
A set of what we know shapes our political attitude towards national issues like youth unemployment, which is primarily a product of the political economy. This in turn influences public policy.
Societies become what they imagine themselves to be. Once narratives that demean and cast aspersions on individuals based on ideological contradictions take root, it will be very difficult to root them out of our national consciousness.
Eventually, young people, being selfdriven agents of change, will push back with consequences too harrowing to contemplate.
As Youth Month moves towards closure, it is important that as South Africans, in all our spheres of influence, we embrace the agency of young people, giving back their ontological density and their being.
In fact, young people fully understand the causal relationship between neoliberalism and their alterity or marginalisation.
To outlive Aids in the 21st century, for example, required an epistemic turn which places young people at the centre of solutions-finding exercise instead of pitying them as inevitable victims of the epidemic.
The ongoing research I am doing with blessers and blessees has confirmed as much: the majority of young people make informed choices, their consequences notwithstanding.
BUILDERS, NOT BRATS: South Africa’s young people, like these at IkamvaYouth in Cape Town, want to contribute.