South Africa

Op-Ed: Let’s get real about South African youth

By Shamillah Wilson 15 June 2015

South Africa annually pays homage to the power of its youth with a range of events and sound bites that speak to the part that youth could play in shaping policy and governance and also social development in the country.

The celebration of youth rides on the back of the youth uprising of 1976 and comes with the recognition of the power, passion, dedication and skills that young people have to offer. It also brings with it a latent acknowledgement that young people have the potential to be a driving force for change and to help tackle socio-economic inequalities.

Aside from showcasing events where decision makers are keen to demonstrate that they take youth seriously, and know what their issues are, in truth, Youth Month exposes the fact that dominant approaches to youth development are paternalistic and quite out of touch with the diversity of youth experiences and struggles.

South Africa’s youth make up more than half of its population, with up to 42% of young people under the age of 30 being unemployed. The frustrations of youth’s lived realities are exacerbated by legacies of poverty, crime and socio-economic inequalities. Perhaps more importantly, the fact that as a country we are falling short in our efforts to ensure equality in education means that the promises of the post-Apartheid, ‘rainbow nation’ remain an elusive mirage.

Aside from the equality in education challenges, despite its best intentions, the current education system (basic and further) has fallen short in producing young graduates that are adaptable, resilient, reflective and self-critical. Although we wax lyrical on increasing youth entrepreneurship and also employment, we have some serious work to do in preparing young people to effectively deal with the world they find themselves in.

Our emphasis in education has been on developing ‘book smarts’ and to some extent ‘street smarts’. With street smarts, you have young people that are savvy and able to effectively navigate their world and the environment they find themselves in to ultimately realise some level of personal development.

Yet, if we are honest, there is a clear mismatch between what is needed from young people exiting the education system and what they are actually leaving the system with. The education system is premised on the assumption that young people are taught emotional and social resilience at home, while parents and communities hope young people get everything they need to live up to their full potential from the education system.

If we are real with ourselves, we will acknowledge that we are falling short in teaching young people to cope with stressful life situations. Ultimately, we have a generation of young people who deal with high levels of anxiety, self-consciousness, uncertainty, doubt, fear and dissatisfaction with themselves. In addition, it is estimated that seven out of 10 youth struggle with low self-esteem. Youth across a wide range of demographics have indicated that low self-esteem increases their likelihood of engaging in risky behaviours (such as alcohol, drugs, unprotected sex) as well as avoiding new challenges or risk due to fear of failure or rejection.

While many young people clearly do not inevitably succumb to their circumstances, or become overwhelmed by the adversity with which they are faced, greater attention needs to be given to education associated with high levels of self-acceptance, positive relations with others, autonomy, environmental mastery, purpose in life, and personal growth.

Aside from the fact that preparing youth for their future is all of our business, the actual consequences of not addressing this major gap in our current approaches to youth development has far-reaching consequences. At the individual level for youth, they continue to feel the burden of responsibility for lifting themselves out of their challenging realities whilst swimming against the tide of inequalities and life challenges.

At a societal levels, we begin to accept as the norm high rates of violence, rape, crime, school dropout rates, unemployment, to mention but a few. It becomes a vicious cycle that reinforces itself over and over again.

So yes, it is important that we acknowledge the power of our youth, but first we 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. In order to do so, it is our responsibility to develop their capacities academically, emotionally and socially such that ultimately we realise the vision of the transformative power that South African youth hold. DM

Photo: Protesters chant slogans in Siyathemba township outside Balfour July 22, 2009. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

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