For a generation of young South Africans who have never had to take to the streets to fight tyranny and oppression, Youth Day has become just another public holiday. There is a growing number of young people who are fed up of being reminded of their debt to the heroes of the struggle, fed up of being reminded of the sacrifice and selflessness. Can’t we just get on with it? And yet the very notion of being able to “just get on with it” is the articulation of a position of privilege.
A mere two days before the country commemorates Youth Day, then, I sat down with a group of youngsters Picador Africa bills “prominent young South African voices worth listening to”.
Does the combination of Khaya Dlanga, Shaka Sisulu, Anele Mdoda, Danny K, Nic Rabinowitz and Gillian Breslin, shepherded by Mandy Wiener, actually represent the voice of South African youth? Sitting in a conference room in a five-star hotel cocooned in Johannesburg’s latest attempt to mimic the European metropolis, Melrose Arch, we could not have been further removed from the horror stories of, say, the Eastern Cape, where reportedly an abortion takes place on average every 10 minutes at its clinics.
So what makes this particular group of youngsters more worthy of our attention than any other young South Africans? Are they really best placed to voice the place of young South Africans? By publishing this series of books, Picador Africa is allowing young people to give voice to their concerns, but how do these young people contribute to a grand plan for South Africa going forward? Despite our best intentions, there is a fundamental disconnect between the lofty intentions in the ivory tower of social media and the reality on the streets we avoid.
Julius Malema riled the ANC, he struck the fear of socialism back into the hearts of the landed gentry, but he also achieved what few South African politicians achieve today – he was a voice for the other side of South Africa, that side we only listen to when they throw burning tyres on to a busy road. Dissatisfied with my own ability to bridge this gap, I hauled myself out of bed on Thursday morning, ready to be courted by The Youngsters.
Before we are herded into the conference room for our date, I find Anele touching up her lipstick at the lavish buffet. She looks the part of a celebrity and when we settle down for our “date”, I ask if she feels the pressure of the public eye. She shakes her head vociferously, insisting that her priority is to be comfortable in her own skin before the considerations of what anybody else may think of her. “People phone me and invite me to parties and events saying, ‘There’ll be lots of press there’. And I always reply, ‘So what?’ I don’t attend events I don’t want to and I don’t feel pressured to be anywhere I don’t want to be. When I first started I was told to never be photographed with a drink in my hand because I’ll give the impression that I’m a drunk. But I know I’m a responsible drinker. The truth is that I drink. I don’t want to pretend like I’m not. It’s not like I’m drinking so much I’m collapsing on the floor in public. No. I am what I am.” She is that rare woman, sure of herself despite the harsh glare of the public eye. “I am not my gap, but I own it. I am not my size but I own it and you can’t use what you see as a negative against me. I own me and proudly so.” Her self-confidence is disarming. It’s also the secret to her charm.
After teasing Khaya about being a celebrity (he recoils at the term in relation to himself) I ask him why he should be taken seriously as a voice of young South Africans. I point out how surreal the problems of young South Africans feel when we’re ensconced in opulence and luxury. He nods in agreement, pauses and then tells me that he’s often being accused of misrepresenting the rural areas, or the townships, or blackness. He says these accusations, for him, are resonant of the criticism of exiled South Africans in the days of apartheid.
At the same time he acknowledges that urban, professional South Africans, no matter the colour of their skin, are less relevant to rural South Africans the longer they are in Johannesburg. He recalls, “It’s like Thabo Mbeki said in that controversial speech. There are two South Africas…” he trails off. I reply, “Like Ferial Haffejee said, ‘One half tweets and the other doesn’t eat.’ “Exactly!” he exclaims excitedly. He speaks of a sense of guilt – knowing that his native Eastern Cape is the worst off of South Africa’s provinces. But is there a time, perhaps when we grow older, that we will be satisfied with feeding ourselves and our immediate families, taking care of our own and leaving the rest of the family, the community and the country to fend for itself? He’s disbelieving. “No, I think the older we become, in twenty years maybe, I think this guilt will be worse.”
Mandy is the editor of The Youngsters series and as one of South Africa’s most successful non-fiction writers she lends serious literary clout to the series. After my 10 minutes with Khaya are up, I sit down across Mandy and she says imploringly, “Please can we talk about politics or something like that.” I smile my assent but we launch into a discussion of women in South Africa instead. Using the example of the Eyewitness News newsroom, she insists women in South Africa face few of the challenges others do. “Women dominate my newsroom,” she says with obvious pride. I point out to her a recent study in the United States that found women generally are still relegated to the fluffier journalism, leaving the serious stuff, like politics and foreign policy, to men. She interjects here with her own experience, the kind of stories she’s covered she says disproves any relevance of the American experience to South Africa. She points as well to Ferial Haffajee, who as a woman leads one of the most influential newspapers in the country. Haffajee, Wiener says, is setting the agenda in the media and politics.
We do finally fit in some politics, albeit two minutes before the buzzer sounds. Let it be known, Wiener believes the top cop should be a career police officer but she’s also sympathetic to the quandary the president is in. “He needs a good administrator to sort out the mess and there’s so much of fear and dodgy dealings in the police service he had to bring in someone with no prior police record,” she said.
I approached Shaka’s table knowing well what I wanted to ask him. I remember him saying last year that many people don’t understand the added responsibilities that come with being a young, black professional. “There’s always someone who needs to have their fees paid. Or someone needs their school shoes, or something,” he said. It’s a culture of giving back that many other communities are yet to embrace. But can this culture really withstand the scourge of the more general social custom of emphasising self-gratification over the needs of others?
He berates me for being too serious. “The whole time here it’s been jokey- jokey and now you come with this, eh?” he says accusingly. Shaka feels that young, black professionals are still ready to part with their money as a means to give back to their community, but what they are reluctant to do is share their time and expertise.
“I know that if I was in my family homestead in the Eastern Cape, my contribution would be more than just monetary. What you have is a lot of people in the urban areas are subsidising people in the rural areas. I’ve got a chap who drives me and he’s always talking about having to send money home. It’s like the migrant labour system – everyone comes to Johannesburg to send money home but the value someone like me would be able to bring would be the ideas and the exposure and the know-how. The exposure gives you confidence because if I have not travelled the world, I will always have a sense of, ‘I don’t know how good my ideas are in relation to the best ideas in the world’. I think this is what happens back home, even if you have a great idea you don’t know how relevant it is to the rest of the world. Is it really the best? And then you want the affirmation of someone in the city. It’s like Mosi-oa-Tunya, it was always there but then these big-city people came along, saw it and it became known right around the world as ‘Victoria Falls’.”
Just as the buzzer sounds I slide in the question many South Africans would love to have answered. Is there a future for Shaka Sisulu in politics? “We are all involved in politics already. You, me…” he says, knowing well what I mean to ask. Organised politics, I press. “Wouldn’t you love to know,” he says, a twinkle in his eye.
Nik Rabinowitz and Gillian Breslin
Unsure exactly what to ask Nik and Gillian when I sit down at their table, I ask them if they’ve enjoyed working together. They look at each other and then at me and smilingly inform me that they have been working together for four years already. They began working together on a radio show and since then have developed a formidable comedy pairing. Midway through our conversation, they also chide me for guiding the conversation along more serious matters. “We haven’t told any jokes!,” Gillian protests.
And while our conversation was interesting, reflecting on the definition of young people in South Africa – Nik is 35-years old – and wary of carrying the title of a young person much longer. Browsing their book, titled South Africa- A Long Walk to a Free Ride this particular passage from Nik struck me: “I think it’s not necessarily what youngsters should be talking about because in this country we talk about a lot of stuff and it doesn’t create anything. So, what is the kind of speaking that actually creates a new future for us? That’s the kind of talking youngsters should be involved in. The content of it, who knows, but when young people sit down and start to talk about the kind of future they’d love to see for our country, the kind of future where we can all work together, where government operates with integrity, where we stop blaming things on the past and the colour of our skins and political affiliations and stuff like that. Wouldn’t that be cool?”
I reach Danny K just as he picks up a guitar near his table. It is his first ever guitar, gifted to him by his father. He plays a few chords and then returns it to its place in the corner. “I don’t know why they asked me to bring it here,” he shrugs. We settle down to chat, remarking at the happenstance of mutual acquaintances with perfunctionary dues paid to the smallness of the world. I then ask him who young people are. He says: “Even a 50-year-old is a young person if he champions the causes of young people.” What then does growing up mean? He replies thoughtfully: “It’s when you begin to want to chart your own course, do your own thing and at the same time you have the input from your elders, of what they want you to do. I think balancing that is what growing up entails.”
He speaks proudly of his involvement in various charities and I ask how he reconciles his work in advocacy and charity with a music industry that is built around satisfying the ego of its stars. He credits his upbringing for instilling a sense of the “real world” in him but points out as well that charities in South Africa have latched on to the power of celebrity to further good causes. He adds music and sport are like religions in this country but most people lack the opportunities to actually make it. His book, he feels, could be used as a handbook for young South Africans with aspirations in the music industry
*Khadija received a complementary set of The Youngsters from the publishers but solemnly swears to have been unmoved by their generosity. She does, however, recommend the books for purposes of improving the impression that young South Africans are doomed. DM
Photo: Danny K, Anele Mdoda, Shaka Sisulu, Mandu Wiener, Khaya Dlanga and Nik Rabinowitz
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