South Africa is hailed as one of the leading economies in Africa continent, with one of the most liberal and celebrated constitutions in the world. This year, South Africa celebrates 25 years of democracy after apartheid, a systematic discriminatory form of governance that benefitted white South Africans and subordinated Black South Africans.
Across the globe are the youth face challenges of unemployment, lack of access to education and economic opportunities, entrepreneurship, and a subsequent lack of civic participation. Unemployment is reported to be the most pressing issue according to 18-35 year olds, because it determines their economic and civic participation. High rates of unemployment among youth make it increasingly difficult for them to make a smooth transition from “youth” into “adulthood”, a social transition that comes with the expectation that they need to become autonomous, independent and contributing members of society.
Asia and Africa are said to have the highest populations of young people; about 62% of the world’s youth population lives in Asia — the second largest population of 17% is in Africa. It is estimated that the number of young people will increase significantly in Africa over the next few decades.
The challenges for young people as a social group present a pertinent issue in countries that still suffer in the aftermath of slavery and colonialism, established to exploit the economic potential of African labour and resources. These challenges are particularly significant for the youth, because they are the ones who will go on to inherit the challenges of the continent into their senior years.
“When we look at our political parties and government, there aren’t a lot of young people at the forefront. There are so many old people in government. Our government and our society, in general, are not doing enough work to put young people at the forefront, and this is stressful,” says 28-year-old chief executive and founder of The Creative Bar, Kgali Kedijang.
The high levels of unemployment among young people means that manyof them are dissatisfied. Some of them have taken matters into their own hands by starting their own businesses; others by taking to the streets to protest against the lack of service delivery. “Our country is suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder; the sooner these problems are treated accordingly, the sooner people will learn to communicate effectively instead of venting their frustrations by burning schools and hospitals,” says 39-year-old visual artist Vusi Beauchamp about young people.
“25 years of democracy means such different things to all of us because we are all positioned differently. If you look at our parents and where they come from and what their challenges and needs have been, you’ll realise that our frustrations aren’t similar,” says Khangelani Dziba, brand specialist and MA student at Vega.
There is a small number of young South Africans who are well educated and employed and have access to social institutions that allow them the agency to be active citizens. An even smaller number are trying to make opportunities for themselves through entrepreneurship and micro-businesses as a means of surviving unemployment outside of state support. The majority of working-class black citizens face material challenges and lack of access to resources which limits their capacity to be active citizens.
In her book Laying Ghosts to Rest: Dilemmas of the Transformation in South Africa, Dr Mamphela Ramphele notes that being an active citizen is to enjoy one’s rights, with a sense of responsibility towards the collective wellbeing of other citizens. Ramphele further notes that this can only be realised when individuals have their basic rights met and are able to form an allegiance with the state by doing their part to contribute to the wellbeing of the country, which is unfortunately not the case for many South Africans at the moment. Ramphele suggests that for our country to transcend its challenges inherited from apartheid, South Africans need to adopt a citizenship of stewardship, which means that citizens must discharge their duties to the common good through their allegiance to the state in return for protection of their rights by the state.
“I am honestly not happy with where things are at the moment, to be honest. I’ve recently just come back from the Eastern Cape, North West and Mpumalanga, speaking to young women as part of a campaign to determine what they feel about the upcoming elections, since they are the biggest population to have been registered to vote. We found that the living conditions of ordinary South Africans haven’t changed — in fact they may well have deteriorated. The gap between the rich and the poor seems to have grown much bigger. Many women in the country don’t have access to decent sanitation. Many can’t access healthcare, contraceptives or abortion facilities,” notes 28-year-old Kigali Kedijang.
One of the reasons South Africa’s Constitution is celebrated is for that fact that it recognises the rights and dignity of the LGBTIQ+ community. “As a black queer man, one of the things I appreciate is that it is in our Constitution that same-sex marriage is legal, and although there is still a lot of work that needs to be done around this, especially for the trans community, it’s still worth acknowledging that we are free. Also, these laws don’t necessarily mean that we will have an LGBTIQ+ friendly society, so we still need to do more work to ensure that South Africa is inclusive for the marginalised LGBTIQ+ community and to push for this on the continent,” says 28 year-old Londoloza Rangana, senior case worker at Church World Service.
Landa Mabenge, 38-year-old author author of Becoming Him: A Trans Memoir of Triumph, who was 13 when South Africa transitioned into democracy, says: “I’ve grown into this man who’s had access to health and legal resources, and I think this wouldn’t be possible if it wasn’t for the work of liberation fighters. It was their work that resulted in the amazing constitutions and laws that allow me to be who I am, that allow me the liberties of equality as a citizen of this country.” Mabenge also notes: “Yes, a lot more work needs to be done, because more people still need to have access to these laws that are written down.”
There are growing concerns, even among young people, about the quality of education in this country, and the inequalities that pertain to quality education provided by private schools versus public schools. This is a serious concern as it also has direct implications on the future of this country and how well equipped future generations will be to handle today’s challenges.
“There is a huge disparity between government schools and private schools, and this gap has been profoundly unfair, because so many young people are already started off on an uneven level,” says Rangana. “It’s difficult to say that democracy is working when there are still children learning under trees and poverty is still permeating deeply in our society,” adds Kedijang.
The discomfort and challenge that comes with the disparities of living in post-apartheid South Africa, should, if anything, serve as a fundamental motivation for why we should all be committed to making the country better for those who are less privileged. “What makes me happy to be part of this democracy is that people who are in privileged positions like myself are giving back and making sure that the impoverished community have a voice,” says Kedijang.
With elections coming up, the young people I have interviewed and interacted with seem to express a common view around the uncertainty of who to vote for, as they mostly feel under-represented in the current political parties. “As a young person, I’ve never been so confused about what to do and who to vote for. I do not feel that any of the opposition parties have done much to represent our interests; we’ve had the ANC in government for 25 years and yet the plight of young people still leaves a lot to be desired. I have very little faith in political parties bringing about change,” says Kedijang.
“What we need as young people in this country are jobs and financial freedom,” says Dziba. “It’s through the creation of employment that young people will have a chance to participate in the economy and empowered to be engaged in their civic duties.”
The problems faced by young people and the rise of corruption are both indicative of the rise of neoliberal capitalism, which is characterised by a free market economy and valuing the rights of the individual over the collective. This way of thinking overlooks the limitations of structural oppression on the agency of citizens who might suffer from the consequences of historic marginalisation. Even with these limitations and challenges, young people are still considered “great bearers of expectations” within their societies, which means that they will inherit the consequences of problems that pre-date them into adulthood.
“We have seen more new and young voices emerging, and that is certainly hopeful for the future,” adds Mabenge. “The fact that I am hopeful for the future is also informed by the privileges I’ve been afforded that other people may not necessarily have access to,” says Dziba.
Like its young citizens, 25-year-old democratic South Africa has made some significant gains towards imagining an ideal and inclusive society. But there is a lot more work to be done to realise that society for everyone.