Youths role in building a better future

Speaking at the recent ACTIVATE! Exchange in Cape Town, second year Activator, Tumi Jonas, spoke about the challenges that youth face towards defining their own role. She sounded a call to fellow young people to think through the problems they face thoroughly before jumping to creating solutions.

Preparing this presentation has been a challenge for me because I have struggled with the topic. It is difficult for me to talk about how government understands the role of youth when government does not seem to understand its own role, and when youth themselves are not clear on what their role is or should be.

I think it is more important for us to be able to answer the question ‘what is the role of young people in driving change?’ or rather ‘what should be the role of young people in driving change?’ then to answer the question on how Government understands the role of youth, as how youth understands their role should inform how government understands the role the of the youth.

I say this because I think that one of our problems as young people is that we suffer from identity dispossession, we do not have a national identity and we sponsor the eradication of this identity to the government. We need to figure out for ourselves what our identity is as the youth of South Africa and subsequently, what our role should be in driving change. We need to grapple with the facts and collectively discuss and work out the answers ourselves. We need to drive the discourse around issues that affect us, as young people, and collectively implement social solutions to social problems. We can no longer be at the receiving end of our own lives.

One of the biggest lessons I took from the 1st year programme with ACTIVATE! is the importance of doing a thorough analysis of what the problem is before jumping to solutions. I learnt how easy it is to come up with the wrong diagnosis and, therefore, the wrong prognosis.  This is one of the problems that we have as a country and as young people. 

We do not take time to thoroughly think about the problem and ask the right questions, we have so many answers that solutions have become more of a problem than the actual problem. This is dangerous as sometimes, if not most of the time, people get killed by the prescription and not the illness.

It is for this reason that I am here today without solutions. I think we need to pause for a moment; let us pause and think. Sometimes we get so action orientated that we forget to think. We, young people especially, with our now- now tendencies always want to jump to solutions without a proper understanding of what the problem is. 

Let us for a moment look at what some of these issues are. One cannot talk about youth and driving change and not mention the youth of 1976. We all know the story but the short of it is that those young people were able to mobilise themselves, they made an impact on a national scale, they changed the face of South Africa and showed us how powerful young people can be.

I mention the youth of 1976 because we ought to learn from the past, Ivan van Sertima puts it beautifully in his book Child of Africa when he says “History is a critical complement to contemporary reality. . . . It should charge us not only with a surge of new pride but the electric energy of creative action. For it to animate us thus, it will demand, it will most certainly demand, a corresponding animation of consciousness. . . . The vision of our former stature in the world must penetrate our consciousness so deeply that it begins to transform the degrading and dwarf-like habits of our present thought and action, habits which have crippled our progress.This heightened awareness of the best in our past can stimulate and inspire and heal us but it must blend intelligently with a maturing vision of the living present if it is to be of practical value.”

The sad reality is that young people since 1976 have not done anything worthy of being penned down in the books of history, we have not made a collective impact on a national scale that has brought about a positive change in the country. I am not referring to what government has done on behalf of the youth, I am talking about what , as young people, have done for themselves.

One might argue that it is perhaps because we face different challenges now; that we are living in a different time; that we are not fighting a war but I beg to differ.  Just because bullets are not flying about and swords are not flashing around us, does not mean that there is not a war going on. There are different modes of warfare.

Look at the state of our schools and the current trends amongst young people -you will see that we have an intellectual warfare.

Look at what is happening in our societies; young men raping the elderly, young people wasting away on drugs – you will see that we have a psychological warfare.

Look at the shocking conditions people live in; the poverty, unemployment -you will see the economic warfare.

Look at the number of people who have been taking to the streets, look at Marikana, look at the textbook saga, look all around – you will see the political warfare. 

We need to very quickly realise that we are in a crisis as a country and this crisis affects us directly as young people.

What government has created with its structures, policies and development plans is promote individual escape routes from social problems and the delusion that if one grabs enough money he can individually buy his way out of all his problems and discomforts. This has subsequently given a materialistic measurement to development, where government prides itself on the few young people whose businesses or organisations they have funded. These few young people who I call Thabos then become the yardstick. We are told to look at Thabo, look how successful Thabo has become while the conditions of the masses remain the same. 

We, the youth, need to understand that social problems require social solutions collectively devised and collectively implemented. We cannot adequately address social problems without addressing structural problems. Poverty, for example, is a social issue that needs to be addressed on a structural level. Poverty affects the majority of young people, it is a problem that needs to be addressed on a structural level. Yes we can do our part as individuals to help alleviate the problem but our efforts are structured by structural components. Poverty is not a natural catastrophe, it is not a Katrina of some sort, it is not God-made either. It is a structural problem that needs to be dealt with at a structural level. We cannot run from the fact that structural components shape our reality.

ACTIVATE! Is filled with young people who are doing amazing work in their communities and this is what gives me hope for this country but we need to capitalise on our numbers as young people and work on a national scale to bring about structural changes, lest we are prepared to forever be sweeping the water while the tap remains running. The population of this country is 60% youth but this alone is nothing to be proud, large numbers made of people who are unproductive is not an asset. Our numbers need to work for us, we need to capitalise on our numbers to drive change. 

We need to create an identity for ourselves, be at the forefront of everything that is youth related, we need to occupy the right spaces, we need to go back to the drawing board, re-examine our situation, take out our concept cards, dialogue around these issues, grapple with the facts and form an ideological base to inform our actions.  

The question was, what can government do to best support young people to drive change?

We are a country that supposedly works on representation and we young people make up 60% of the population. Simply put, government needs to create space for young people take charge, it needs to loosen its grip and let young people take centre stage. They need to make room for innovation to make its way to the top and trickle back down again. We are future leaders but the future starts today.

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