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Young South Africans are more than a flat demographic

Among our society’s most vulnerable and underserved segments are young people who will inherit this earth, says the writer. File picture: Kim Ludbrook/EPA

Among our society’s most vulnerable and underserved segments are young people who will inherit this earth, says the writer. File picture: Kim Ludbrook/EPA

Published Jun 11, 2022


By Sekoetlane Phamodi

In the course of the past three years, South Africa has experienced immense turbulence which has had seismic implications for the poor and underserved majority of our people.

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The Covid-19 pandemic, the rapid contraction of the economy and the steep rise in unemployment have brought into sharp focus just how much our society depends on a capable state.

South Africa is beset with problems that urgently demand inclusive and accountable leadership, robust public infrastructure and services which deliver human security and opportunity, and a civil service that is demonstrably committed as well as supported to care for all vulnerable and marginalised people.

Among our society’s most vulnerable and underserved segments are young people who will inherit this earth but are systematically excluded from defining its future. From shaping the political process and its outcomes to accessing the front-line services we depend on for improving our social outcomes and leading dignified lives, young people are the most affected but least consulted about what it will take to make a better tomorrow today.

Through the course of this month, government events and media platforms will be awash with elder states-people, government ministers and elected representatives making the same trite calls to action.

We will be told that “young people must be more politically active”, as though we aren’t. That “young people must assume the mantle of leadership”, as though we are not turned away from the halls of power with teargas and rubber bullets when we do.

It will even be said that “young people must come out of relative obscurity and discover and fulfil our generation’s mission or betray it”, as though so much of the public policy deliberations and emerging pathways for achieving them today – such as free and decolonised higher education for all and the abolition of requirements which raise the cost of seeking work – are not being advanced by young people demanding the better world we deserve.

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Being on the ground, young people have a deep and lived appreciation of South Africa’s societal challenges, and with our whole lives ahead of us, have clear and bright ideas for how to rebuild our society for the better.

From being deliberate about undoing structural inequality which produces unemployment, poverty and crime, to strengthening South Africa’s public institutions to be more transparent and accountable, young people involved in the programmes of the Accountability Lab and beyond are generating practical pathways to unshackling themselves and their communities from the prevailing bondage of hopelessness and despair.

What young people keep reinforcing is that to build a capable and accountable state, we need more than slogans, more than voting, and more than being instrumentalised to maintain this unsustainable political status quo.

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As a society, we are at a point in our social and political development where we can no longer rely on the government to solve our problems. It was probably wrong of us to have had this expectation, and certainly wrong of the government to have created it in the first place.

We are now at a point where we have to create our own solutions as well as the conditions that will produce the outcomes we want and deserve. Everywhere we look, young people are taking initiative and showing us the way. I think of the young people of Lehae, in the south of Johannesburg.

All teenagers and younger, have been campaigning for over a year for a library built as many as four years ago, to be handed over to the community and opened so they may have safe and enabling spaces to read, learn, convene and organise.

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And if we turn our gaze to Khayelitsha in the City of Cape Town, while government ministers aid oil companies and mining magnates in fulfilling their commitment to extractives and amassing private wealth, it is 19-year-old Ayakha Melithafa and 13-year-old Yola Mgogwana who are leading the urgent call for a just transition to renewable energy and the financing of climate adaptation and resilience programmes at scale.

This is because they are already living through the devastating impact of global heating and the climate crisis caused by fossil fuels and growth-based capitalism. What young people want is to be supported and enabled.

But for that to happen, we need to be seen and heard as more than a flat demographic that can produce votes every five years. We must be appreciated for the full and diverse citizens we are. Citizens who bring real value to our social and political discourse such as we do, because we have the sizeable investment of our whole lifetimes in the social outcomes being engineered today.

It is for these reasons and more that we at the Accountability Lab wholeheartedly endorse the Youth Day Parade for Justice and Change to be held in Pretoria on June 16.

The initiative brings young people together in their demand that the government account for its performance against its mandate to combat youth unemployment, end gender-based violence and deliver climate justice. We call on all young people who are able to join us in this pursuit.

* Phamodi is an activist and Country Director of Accountability Lab South Africa