South African Youth: Seize the Power

By Published On: 17th April 2024

Across South Africa, a generation stands at a pivotal crossroads, their voices echoing the complexities of a nation in flux. From the Eastern Cape to Kwa-Zulu Natal and the Northern Cape, young voices are shaping the narrative of democracy in the so-called ‘Rainbow Nation’.

Over the past few months, I’ve had the privilege of engaging with young people across these diverse landscapes, facilitating dialogues on democracy, civic participation, and the role of youth in shaping South Africa’s future. What emerged from these conversations was a rich tapestry of perspectives, reflecting both the aspirations and disillusionments of South Africa’s youth.

In the Eastern Cape, where the scars of apartheid run deep, a group of young individuals grappled with the notion of political participation. Among them, only 8 out of 17 were registered to vote. When asked why, their responses painted a picture of disinterest and disillusionment. “What’s the point?” they questioned, citing a lack of belief in the efficacy of their vote and a dearth of meaningful representation. Yet, beneath the veneer of apathy lay a keen understanding of the socio-political landscape, with these young voices articulating the pressing issues facing their communities with clarity and conviction.

Meanwhile, in Kwa-Zulu Natal, a gathering of high school students echoed similar sentiments of disillusionment with the political system. None of the 21 participants present that day were registered to vote and viewed politics as a game for the ‘old people’ to line their pockets. Yet, when tasked with running a mock political campaign, they, too, demonstrated a profound understanding of the challenges facing their communities and the broader South African society. Their cynicism toward traditional avenues of political participation were later tempered by a commitment to address societal issues from the ground up.

In the Northern Cape, a group of young adults aged 18 to 35 expressed a deep-seated mistrust in democratic values. For them, democracy was synonymous with selfishness, lack of dignity, and economic exploitation. Their disillusionment reflects a systemic failure to uphold the ideals of democracy, with the government perceived as serving economic interests rather than the needs of the people.

As a means to break free from the indignities inflicted on their community by a democratically elected government, young people in this community chose to turn inward and embrace individualism as a coping mechanism. One young man said, “I have power, ja, over myself. I make my own life.” His words- ironically- convey a sense of powerlessness. He believes that he can only control himself, not his community or his government. He sees himself as removed from both.

Yet, amidst the cynicism and disillusionment, there lies a profound yearning for change. While these young voices may feel disconnected from formal political processes, their dissatisfaction with the status quo speaks volumes. It’s a call to action, a demand for a more inclusive and responsive democracy that prioritises the welfare and dignity of all its citizens.

In confronting the entrenched systems of youth disengagement and disillusionment, South Africa faces a pivotal moment of reckoning. It is 30 years since the fall of formal apartheid- is it not yet time to shatter the status quo, to challenge the plethora of -isms that have long barred young voices from the corridors of power? The exclusion of young people from spaces of influence is not just a symptom of a broken system; to young people it is recognised as a deliberate and violent attempt to stifle their voices.

But in the face of adversity lies opportunity—a chance to tear down the barriers that perpetuate inequality and exclusion. True empowerment demands more than token gestures from political leadership; it requires a fundamental shift in the structures of power. Perhaps it even requires total dismantlement of power structures as we know it.

It’s about meeting young people not just where they are, but where they deserve to be: at the forefront of decision-making processes, their voices amplified and their agency respected.

In harnessing the untapped potential of youth, South Africa stands to unleash a force of unprecedented energy and creativity. It’s a force capable of dismantling the entrenched injustices that have plagued our country since colonisation. But this journey toward meaningful change will not be easy. From youth, it demands courage, perseverance, and a willingness to challenge the entrenched interests that seek to maintain the status quo. Of the elderly, it requires sharing power; it necessitates active, authentic listening; and it demands an acknowledgement of young people as full citizens- human beings- with enormous value to contribute.

This election year, as our nation stands on the brink of a new era, the imperative is clear: the voices of South Africa’s youth must be not only heard but heeded. It’s time for young people to rise up, to harness the power of connectivity and solidarity in the fight against multiple injustices. Even those who doubt the promise of democracy must recognize the potential of collective and co-ordinated action to effect meaningful change.

I issue a challenge to the youth of South Africa: seize the power that is rightfully yours. Reject the narratives of apathy and disillusionment weaponised against you and instead, dare to fight for a future- for a present- where your voices resound strongly and clearly. Together, we can occupy the seats of power, not as passive bystanders, but as active drivers of change.

by Danielle Hoffmeester, Project Leader, IJR

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