SA’s youth are fed-up and taking the fight into their own hands

Published by News24
Written by Ari Goldberg

This Sunday South Africans commemorate Youth Day, a national day of remembrance of the 1976 Soweto uprising which claimed the lives of hundreds of students, traumatised thousands more, and inspired millions.

This incredible series of events captures the bravery and courage of the youth and the will for a better reality. It is a testament to the power of unity and the potential power that every single individual possesses. It is a day that ushered in a new mentality of hope while shedding light on the inhumane treatment of the apartheid regime. Forty-three years later, this day and all it symbolises, is as relevant as ever.

The situation of South Africa’s youth is dire. Despite numerous appeals and various promises from the government, the level of youth unemployment remains terrifyingly high. The role of education is critical in lessening the number of poor South Africans that find themselves in this statistic. However, the tiny proportion of students who survive primary and secondary schooling, and graduate from tertiary education institutions is still shockingly low.

This is worrying in its own right but of more urgent significance is the plight of the youth without any chance of university entrance. The need to radically improve the level of youth involvement in South African society is a critical discussion that needs to happen on campuses, businesses and homes around the country. This discussion is of national significance and is a critical element of our future societal well-being.

Despite its importance, this conversation is barely happening in the spaces where it needs to and with the people that will both fight against it and the people it affects: the youth. On campuses, small gatherings and events hosted by political parties, as well as other student organisations have helped shed light on political parties’ strategies to improve the situation, but the majority of students have been left in the dark. The exclusion of the youth from this discussion outside of tertiary education is even worse. Something needs to change.

When considering universities themselves, the presence of political parties on campuses throughout the year remained, as usual, insignificant. The national elections saw the ANC, EFF and DA all proclaim the importance of alleviating the socio-economic malady of high youth unemployment and the in South Africa. But it’s discussion that our youth have been effectively side-lined from despite the crucial role that we have to play.

This complacent attitude by government clearly shows its disillusioned effort to solve the crisis. Yet another election campaign has been waged with the youth being voiceless. Yet another wasted opportunity to genuinely engage on the issue.

Lack of engagement with the youth caused by short-sightedness

The effort by political parties to engage in youth unemployment is minimal. Despite the tunes currently being chanted by politicians about the issue, the track record of political parties in South Africa regarding this issue is terribly poor. Why? Isn’t a problem of this magnitude worth time, effort and money to fix? Why hasn’t it been addressed?

I believe the answer to this is short-sightedness. The inability of the government to address structural issues within South Africa – not only like this – is prevalent throughout our democratic history. The ANC inherited a mammoth task of uplifting a severely fragmented country and deliver the social services that for so many years, majority of the population had been denied. In focusing on this, the government effectively chose to address various other issues that were deemed of a higher priority. Some of these “lesser issues” just so happen to be youth unemployment. No effective strategies have been implemented and South Africans are yet to hear concrete plans to address the issue in the future.

The rise of the EFF’s popularity as revealed by our last election emphasises how fed-up the youth are at being shelved by the ruling party. Approximately 36% of South Africa’s population is between the ages of 15 to 34 (StatsSA, 2018). With such a young population, the problems that the youth are facing are shown to be enormous and of national significance. The ANC’s disregard of the issue is counter-intuitive.

Steady spill-over effect into community life

In order to achieve the growth rates that the ANC constantly refers to, the country needs to significantly expand – among other factors – a stable and growing labour force. The current youth unemployment creates the exact opposite scenario. Not only do high levels of youth unemployment create increased levels of crime and safety concerns for businesses and citizens, it also has a steady spill-over effect into community life and the stability of the political landscape in South Africa. Political instability has an enormous impact on the world’s perception of South Africa, especially investors. It is critical that government prioritises youth unemployment as it’s an important step South Africa must take to initiate sustainable economic growth.

Student elections at multiple universities across South Africa reveal a further problem with the current way the youth and their problems are being approached.

The student representative council (SRC) is the student body democratically elected to lead university students and to be the voice of the youth. However, the low turnout of student voters in SRC elections emphasises a worrying phenomenon in South African universities. With the country’s student leadership dominated by political parties and politically-backed coalitions, it isn’t surprising that majority of students don’t feel represented by the political parties on show.

Universities are often considered a microcosm of society and indeed the voter turnout results over the last few years indicate a problem that broader society is plagued by that isn’t being approached by government with the urgency it requires: political parties aren’t seen to promote the interests of the youth. They may make the most noise on campus and in the streets, but students don’t see them as being a serious option that deserve their votes.

However, it would be a mistake to accuse the SRCs at various universities of totally neglecting students – this simply isn’t true. SRCs across the country have made great strides in working with administrations to create better campuses for students but the fact remains that low voter turnout is a truly worrying and an insightful trend.

Taking the fight into our own hands

Various student organisations have taken the fight into their own hands. Multiple organisations like SAUJS, Amnesty International student chapters and Rethinking Economics for Africa are finding ways to lead without the political element. These organisations lead through a model of “show don’t tell”. An increased number of student education and welfare programs, as well as student safety and various types of training and skills upliftment initiatives have sprung up on campuses around South Africa. Organisations without the political backing of SRCs are demonstrating a level of responsibility that political parties so desperately need. The youth are empowering their peers to promote a better future – without the help of the political parties. This is the model that the ANC, EFF and DA – our supposed leaders – desperately need to pick up on.

As we prepare to celebrate Youth Day, let us remember the thousands of students that fought against the discriminatory Bantu Education system of the Apartheid regime. We cannot let their legacy of showing the potential and power of the youth disappear as a consequence of our government’s impotent crusade against youth unemployment. Their fight for the upliftment and empowerment of the youth is of national importance and continues to this day.

It is every individual’s responsibility to aid the fight against this issue and reignite the spark that inspired millions of South Africans to believe in a better future. We must pay homage to the students who were willing to give up their lives in the fight for something they believed in. Let us take this opportunity to reflect on the role our youth play in moving society forward and endeavour to create a safer environment for the youth to grow and lead our South Africa.

Let us turn our streets into maps, our homes into bastions of support and our campuses into a springboard for South Africa’s youth to rise up once more and transform our society into a better reality for all.

– Ari Goldberg is a third year student at Wits University. He is a member of the SA Union of Jewish Students (SAUJS) and Amnesty International. 

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