The grave of Hector Pieterson, who died in the 1976 schools unrest.

As a young South African I sometimes wonder what it would have been like growing up during the 1970s and 1980s in this country. In a time characterised by simmering unrest and escalating protest against the oppressive systems of the apartheid government.

Would I have stood, fist raised in solidarity, with the hundreds of youths who refused to continue to be subjected to the inhumane policies of the state, which perpetuated unequal treatment and exclusion of the majority in the interests of a few?

This is something I suspect many young people have reflected on. I have even been in conversation with some young people who go as far as to say they feel they were born at the wrong time – they feel they should have been born earlier, so as to have been actively involved in the anti-apartheid struggle.

South Africa is not unfamiliar with expressions of youth power. The 1976 protests that shook the country ultimately set into motion the struggle that would successfully bring an end to the apartheid regime.

The role that young activists have played in our country’s transition speaks to the transformative power of youth, and youth leadership.

Considering this history, it is alarming how current conversations about young South Africans have relied on a rhetoric of unruliness and destruction. Images of crowds of young people demonstrating in support of former ANC Youth League president Julius Malema regularly bombard South Africans in the media.

Youth are often portrayed as a “lost generation”, and while these representations remain, they delegitimise the power and impetus of young people for social transformation and change.

It might not be that our generation is lost unto ourselves – degenerate, unfocused and a reason for fear. It may be that our country risks losing us, somewhere along the way.

The young South Africans at the forefront of the anti-apartheid struggle have been immortalised in museums and textbooks for their roles in the legitimate and just fight for democracy.

In stark contrast, the young people of today are often seen as lacking in a cause or bigger political purpose – rather than our critical and profound experiences and struggles, many are regarded as a potential threat that needs to be managed.

Yet ours is a different but equally important struggle. We no longer have to physically fight against oppressive government powers with bullets and bombs, in covert operations. But we face the legacies of poverty, crime and social and economic inequalities.

One of our biggest battles is for equality in education in this country – an absolute imperative if we are to ensure that we can enjoy economic freedom, alongside hard-won political freedoms.

Young South Africans are caught in a space between a violent history, defined by extreme exclusion and gross infringements of human rights – and a post-apartheid, “rainbow nation” that is buckling under an ever-growing weight of crime, poverty and deep inequality.

This paradoxical crisis – the promise of a bright future through a new dispensation, and the frustrations of our lived realities – has pushed young people into new struggles and pro-democracy demonstrations the world over.

We all need to shift our perceptions beyond the current singular narrative of South African youth as violent, uneducated, unemployable and unemployed. Young people need and deserve to be recognised as the powerful agents of social transformation and change that many will become.

Intergenerational dialogue is critical if we are to achieve this shift. Some argue that the central fault line in South African society today is one between generations.

Increasingly, we see youth potential extracted and manipulated to further the political agendas of many in power. At the same time, young people have yet to see the benefits of promised changes in the economy.

The impact of globalisation, and the tension it brings between continuity and change, is particularly felt in Africa. Despite promises of modernity and all that it has to offer, most South African youth remain on the periphery of these possibilities, watching with discontent from the sidelines.

New spaces for political assertion and identity formation arise in the midst of disenchanted sites and decayed or novel institutions. Youth, often in a state of disillusionment with government and the promises of democracy, face the challenge of forging their own futures and security.

There is, however, much to be learnt through encouraging conversations between generations that promote deeper insight into behaviours and actions, and in which knowledge and experiences are shared. Examining and recognising connections and interdependencies between generations are important for the activists of yesterday and those of today and tomorrow.

It is only through deep meaningful engagements with youth that concerted efforts can be made to move away from a homogenous narrative based on threat, to igniting and harnessing the transformative power that South African youth hold.

l Eleanor Swartz is project leader of the Ashley Kriel Youth Leadership Development Project at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation (IJR).