Exactly 41 years ago, young people from Soweto and other townships demonstrated their power by mobilising in numbers to challenge the apartheid state. What started out as relatively peaceful protests rapidly escalated into violence as the government responded with force and brutality. The courage, planning, sacrifice and resilience of the youth played a pivotal role in the catalytic events that finally brought apartheid to its knees, resulting in the democratic South Africa that we know today.
As South Africans commemorate the gallant youth of the 1970s, it’s also a time for sober reflection on the future we have bequeathed to today’s youth. There’s no doubt that South Africa’s future lies in their hands. Hence the theme for Youth Month 2017, “The Year of OR Tambo: Advancing Youth Economic Empowerment”, is especially poignant in light of the many challenges they are facing — political uncertainty, high unemployment, endemic corruption, grinding poverty and increased levels of crime and insecurity. Although many of these challenges are remnants of the apartheid past, the current sociopolitical and economic contexts in which they are experienced have done little to mitigate their disastrous outcomes.
Instead, ineffective governance, administrative inefficiencies, lack of vision and poor policies have, according to the latest Statistics South Africa (Stats SA) figures, exacerbated the challenges facing young people. The Quarterly Labour Force Survey (QLFS) of Stats SA released on June 1 2017, shows that the unemployment rate in South Africa has increased to 27.7% in the first quarter of 2017. This is not only the highest increase since 2003, it is also particularly disturbing that youth unemployment contributes 38.6% to the unemployment rate.
So once again, the qualities of courage, planning and resilience of 1976 are called upon for young people to face up to their challenges in a world that is vastly different from the 1970s. Major shifts on the domestic sociopolitical and economic fronts, together with increasing pressure resulting from globalisation, require a different strategy, one that is commensurate with what is experienced today. As former Anglo-American scenario planner Clem Sunter eloquently puts it: “The strongest species don’t survive; the most adaptable do.”
With so many unpredictable challenges, the question arises: How do people cope and realise success in such a daunting environment? Bob Marley sang a possible answer in Redemption Song: “Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery; none but ourselves can free our minds.” And this is the crux of the matter: Can our youth free themselves from the clutches of failing ideological rhetoric? Can they make the critical judgments and choices outside of the dominant narrative and in defiance of peer pressure?
At a time when alternative perspectives are needed, they should realise that some belief systems have become constraining because they are out of alignment with the demands of today’s world. A mind that is overly conditioned by embedded doctrines and outmoded ways of thinking is futile when trying to generate alternative options for complex and emerging social challenges.
Some key principles should underpin coping strategy. Foremost, people need to regain personal power by assuming personal responsibility for their futures. But the ability to respond is premised on awareness; awareness: of one’s environment, awareness of oneself and awareness of how one should act in this environment. Awareness needs to be coupled with a critical mind that is aware of the many “blind spots” from which one operates and be prepared to challenge existing practices to effect change.
Deciding on the right choices and acting on these are critical to success. Being passive and operating from a perspective of entitlement that the government or any other agency will provide is counterproductive. Progress is possible with a combination of a positive attitude, knowledge and skills to put one’s strategy into effect. Author Alvin Toffler in the early 1970s commented that, to deal with rapid change and the complexities of the 21st century, we must be able to “learn, unlearn and relearn”. Therefore education, the willingness to learn and the ability to leverage value from learning is critical in this process. Good quality, holistic and market-relevant education is central to social development and personal advancement and it makes good sense to address youth development from the pivotal role that education can play.
Young people have the potential to own the world. They do not have to be victims of circumstances and can, with constructive and proactive action, shape their personal circumstances and hence their destinies. The “FUGA” companies — Facebook, Uber, Google and Airbnb — were started by young people, some barely out of their teens. The youth have time on their side and often possess dollops of energy and enthusiasm. It’s a matter of nurturing these and steering them in a direction that will decide between failure and success.
Rudi Kimmie (PhD) is the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s manager of the Hub for the African City of the Future and an associate of the Leadership Dialogue. These are his own views