Critical but stable is a phrase synonymous with a difficult period in the life of our democratic nation — when we held our breath and said our prayers for our founding democratic president, Nelson Mandela.
Today we ought to pose this phrase as a question about the state of youth affairs in South Africa. We raise this question fittingly in the year of the 100th birthday of Albertina Sisulu and Mandela.
It also happens to be the year in which the ANC Youth League, an organisation that Mandela co-founded with Walter Sisulu, Oliver Reginald Tambo and others in 1944, is to elect its new leadership.
While the youth league dilly-dallies and tallies its numbers in preparation for this critical elective conference, apparently due to take place next month, let us reflect on some crucial numbers.
The 2018 first quarter figures from Statistics South Africa show us that young people remain vulnerable in the labour market. In that quarter, the youth unemployment rate remained at an unchanged high of 38.2%. The youth unemployment rate is higher irrespective of education level, meaning that many young people are sitting at home with qualifications. The number of young people between the ages of 15 and 24 who are not in employment, education or training is at 32.4%, or about 3.3-million.
In an era hinged on digital connectivity mobile data prices remain high and unaffordable.
The National Student Financial Aid Scheme, which is the government’s disburser for student funding in higher education, remains in tatters and students are in difficulties well into the third quarter of the academic year.
Universities and other institutions of higher education tragically continue to battle with rape culture and grievous incidences of gender-based violence, a battle they seem to be losing. A battle the country is also losing.
These are but a few pressing problems for young people in this country.
In this dilapidating state of affairs and times of uncertainty in our nation, one thing remains consistent — the vacuum in youth leadership. The youth of South Africa don’t have a voice of active, authentic and committed leadership.
One would assume that this would be the key role of the youth organisation of the political party that enjoys hegemony and governance over the South African society. Perhaps, as the youth league’s president suggested on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of June 16, its leadership is in deep slumber “in the pockets of old people”.
By the way, these are the same old people who are complicit in, and some are even the direct cause of, the state in which the youth of this country finds itself. But let us not digress; that is a separate lengthy discussion.
Apart from the youth league having said it is “gutted by latest employment statistics”, calling it a “national catastrophe”, pledging its “unwavering support and solidarity on the ongoing nationwide protests against gender-based violence” and making media statements concerning every other national issue, it seems to be wanting in respect of serious and decisive agitation for issues affecting the youth of South Africa.
The complementary-contradictory relationship that ought to exist between itself and the governing party appears to be lacking the necessary gravitas to make the youth the central voice in our democratic nation.
Is the youth league critical but stable?
Frankly speaking, the last youth league leadership that tried to make the youth a central voice in our democratic nation was the leadership elected in 2008 in Bloemfontein. It is no mistake then that a prominent few of that leadership cohort continue to robustly determine the national agenda, albeit from opposition benches.
As the youth of our country, and the country in general, battles a plethora of problems, the youth league should be reminded of the words of ANC president Dr AB Xuma in 1944, the year of the formation of the youth league, when he said that those young people had been called to discuss the important “question of the formation of an organisation to solve the problem of African people, a problem of a future South Africa …”.
It doesn’t seem as if the present-day youth organisation is pre-occupied with the problems of the African youth or with the important questions relating to the future of South Africa.
It also doesn’t help the young people of this country that the main opposition party youth formations are almost non-existent. The Democratic Alliance’s youth structure is unknown but, if known, has no visible agenda or an audible voice. Although, to the DA’s credit, it has given young people comparatively enormous room to participate in governance and public office.
The Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), on the other hand, is in itself a youth political party, with a majority of its top leadership consisting of relatively young political leaders.
So, if the youth league is serious about being the “critical youth voice” South Africa desperately needs, it will have to do more than merely issuing statements decrying issues that young people already oppose. It will have to actively and authentically agitate for the centrality of young people in our nation’s discourse.
It will also have to firmly and practically hold the government and governing party accountable, especially for the malaise and the deepened archaic rot of unethical governance. But before it can do that, it will need to demonstrate an ability to purge from its own ranks the same traits of decay, leaders who are self-serving and who are deeply vested in self-interest and gain.
As the youth league prepares to elect its new leadership, it must be constantly bothered by the state of youth affairs in South Africa and their conscious must be burdened by the words of Xuma when he said in 1941: “We must put the cause and the interests of the people before any expediency … To be true leaders, we must put the interests and welfare of our people above our own.”
It must take to serious depths the task of electing a leadership that is fit for purpose, mindful of the problems faced by the youth of this country. Thereafter, it must take a radical and active posture of challenging the current leadership, a posture akin to that in the Hani Memorandum, which was arguably the precursor to the all-important consultative ANC Morogoro Conference of 1969.
The authors of that memorandum, Chris Hani and others, said: “We, as genuine revolutionaries, are moved by the frightening depths reached by the rot in the ANC …” and “we are disturbed by the careerism of the ANC leadership … who have, in every sense, become professional politicians rather than professional revolutionaries”.
Those young militant leaders lamented a state of decay, which waslargely characterised by personal and commercial interest and gain among theleadership. They argued that because of the leadership’s preoccupation with this, it had lost its core focus — the revolution.
Today South Africa faces many struggles of social-ills and stands at crossroads in many crucial respects, but does it have the necessary revolutionary youth leadership for these mammoth tasks?
Thanduxolo Nkala is an admitted advocate of the high court, a master’s degree candidate at Nelson Mandela University and a social activist