Its Time to Take a Hard-nosed Look at the Problems South African Youth Face

By Frank Meintjies

Each year during June the focus turns to youth and the role that youth played in the struggle to end apartheid. This appreciation must advance beyond nostalgia, and should inform a hard-nosed focus on youth to have a more decisive influence on socio-economic development in South Africa.

Youth in South Africa today face many similarities with the youth in the rest of the continent.  While youth increase as a proportion of the population, their socio-economic position worsens. Although youth have better options compared to counterparts in many African countries, our challenge is more urgent due to higher levels of inequality.

In SA youth form a majority – youth under 30 years of age make up 30 million out of a population of about 50 million. Youth share in the problems of unemployment and are equally affected by poverty with its race, spatial and gender dimensions. They are in the direct firing line of problems of exclusion and marginalisation. They bear the brunt in a context where there is widespread wastage of human resources in an economy beset by low growth, capital intensity and limited employment creation.

Although a small number of youth have the means to be part of the consumption society, all youth are affected by changes in the culture of this global era.

In South Africa, the many aspire to – and the tiny few join in – the bling lifestyle and the “get rich quick” culture, with many youth leaders giving mixed messages about values. Meanwhile the mass of youth live in deprivation in far flung rural areas, in peri-urban settlements and the teeming townships.

In Sara Blecher’s documentary, Surfing Soweto, we witness how youth struggle to survive. The three youth who take to “train surfing” have dreams (in most cases to find a job and earn a modest income) but find little support to advance their lives. In the end one enrols in an NGO skills programme, but only after he sees one of his mates die on the train tracks and the other slip back into drug addiction. All this takes place in a locality that is relatively prosperous and which has received favour in government programmes.

Government has put in place youth structures that are meant to ensure youth development. These include oversight bodies and a national development finance institution for youth.

Sadly for youth, the existence of these bodies has not translated in to tangible gains for the youth of the country. Many youth reportedly complain that these bodies have made little difference. They have not improved the role of youth in the development process, increased their voice in decision-making over key resources and nor have they resulted in better ‘service delivery’ to youth.

The youth development institution (now integrated into a national agency), the Umsobomvu Youth Fund (UYF), faltered mainly because it understood youth development in far too narrow terms; it focused on skills development (mainly for graduates) and on entrepreneurship at a time of unemployment and low economic growth. This meant the bulk of youth felt they got nothing from the UYF.

Lately, commentators and political leaders have been warning of a wave of youth resistance (I have heard this being referred to as “youth gevaar” or as the coming tsunami). Of course these warnings also spring from poverty and exclusion. These calls are made against the backdrop of contestation for the youth. They also occur in a context of contestation for the hearts and minds of the youth by, for example, Julius Malema, the Democratic Alliance and the Defence Force.

In the case of COSATU, discontent among the youth is raised as part of a left agenda and pressure for greater redistribution. Of course COSATU clashes with government when the latter refers to the trade off between emphasising the quality of work and better incomes versus increasing the number of jobs. In such cases, COSATU finds itself opposing incentive-based schemes to increase youth employment.

Of course, the likelihood and the gains of revolutionary uprisings can be exaggerated. They do occur, as we have seen in North Africa, even in the most repressive and closed societies. But they occur less frequently than proponents imagine. In addition, uprisings sometimes fall short of the desired transformative effects. In many North African countries, the unseating of a dictator is all that has been achieved so far; much more work needs to be done to attain democracy and positive economic change.

Therefore, when we look at youth militancy as a force for change, we remember that this militancy can be translated into positive social change only through addition of ingredients such as slow and patient organisation-building, support for youth programmes and – more broadly – the creation of a social culture that prioritises “voice” and participation in society by as many stakeholders as possible.

This behoves us, who value youth as a force for change, to equally encourage organisation and deeper development work amongst youth. In this regard, true youth development should be situated in an understanding of a citizen-driven democracy. In terms of this, youth are not just “led” (in the negative sense of the term) or mobilised into causes or enrolled to strengthen particular agendas. Instead a deeper sense of youth involvement in society and its issues is built through programmes that emphasize youth leadership, that heighten youth engagement with human rights issues and that support young people as they aim to address local problems, build bridges and influence development in South Africa.

It has been said before but should be repeated: Most youth care about the future, they have opinions and ideas that should be listened to, they want to contribute to positive social change. But all too often they are shut of processes to address the critical issues facing society.

In order to combat youth marginalisation and exclusion, the following five points are important to consider.

Work among children should not just focus on children as victims, as youth activist Steve Mokwena has noted. Sufficient attention and resources should be steered towards programmes that stress “children’s rights, children’s strength and resilience, and children’s participation.”

We should look back at, and learn from, the forms of youth organisation that existed from the seventies until 1994, especially the work by the black consciousness movement, the faith-based organisations, local organisations of the Mass Democratic Movement (MDM) and the national youth structures themselves. Why, in a situation of great social need, have these activities contracted and why have so many national youth bodies folded?

Entities such as the National Lotteries Distribution Trust Fund and the National Development Agency should be examined through the lens of youth development. What biases exist in terms of their understanding of youth development? What, in their practices, prevents support for youth organisations and a wider range of youth programming?

While I value the militancy of youth organisations, care should be taken to avoid the negative elements that can occur with such forcefulness. Youth organisations should make sure militancy does not translate into militaristic styles of control and nor should it undermine principles of gender equality and internal democracy. Militancy should also not lead to privileging mobilisation and neglecting organisation.

Generally, due attention and resources should be given to youth activities that link with notions of citizen-driven democracy and which foreground elements such as youth leadership, youth participation in social change, community programmes for youth and programmes that strive to amplify the voice of youth in wider societal decision-making.

Meintjies is a freelance writer and author of the blog Sideview.

Read more articles by Frank Meintjies.

This article has been published on the South African Civil Society Information Service website(


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