Stop ‘diss­ing’ our youth

The Star Early Edition - - OPINION & ANALYSIS -

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.

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