MAVERICK CITIZEN Op-ed
An open letter to the Youth Parliament
Sixteen-year-old Malaika Minyuku-Gutto attended the recent virtual Youth Parliament session and provides an account of an experience.
A virtual Youth Parliament sitting was hosted at Parliament on 26 June 2020 for about 180 young people, including Members of Parliament, members of the provincial legislatures, metropolitan and district councillors, as well as youth formations and civil society, to discuss accelerating the youth economic agenda during and post Covid-19, barriers to youth participation and employment, and the overall youth development agenda for the sixth Parliament. It was to provide young MPs, MPLs and councillors the opportunity to institutionalise oversight and accountability structures across the three spheres of government, to enable targeted responses to youth.
I write this open letter in response to all those who participated in the Youth Parliament’s conversation on 26 June 2020.
On behalf of The Youth’s Truth, I would like to express our gratitude for the opportunity. It was an eye-opening experience, both in terms of the conversation that took place and in terms of the insight it gave into the underlying systems and structures that define our national Parliament.
It was my first time there and I am by no means an expert, but I struggled with many things. At 16, The Youth’s Truth delegates were the youngest guests in a space that was focused on youth. The African Union and South Africa both define youth as people between the ages of 15 and 35. That is where the problem begins.
The Youth Parliament needs to redefine what youth is in order to become more inclusive of the teenage demographic. What do teenagers like us have in common with 35-year-olds? The idea that this age group has the same issues, faces the same problems, and wants the same solutions, policy or legislation is simply ridiculous. We do not even speak the same language. We call people of that age aunty, uncle, sisi or abuti. As many others have argued, this concept of youth is “just a lie”.
Several articles in issue 8 (2017) of the Buwa Journal focused on youth. These articles point out that this conception of youth often includes the idea that we are chaotic and disorganised.
Newsflash: in the age of bullet journalling and note-taking aesthetics, we young people have a great appreciation for well-organised events that take us seriously.
Starting late because Members of Parliament were having a photo-op was a great way to lose an audience that arrived on time.
All the online education in the last few months has taught us a thing or two about Zoom: IT support can keep everyone muted and reduce some of the chaos we experienced during the session.
The takeaway lesson is that young people will pay more attention in a better and more organised space.
In South Africa’s Parliament, only 23 members can be classified as youth (based on the definition I mentioned earlier) and the youngest member is 21 years old. The space was full of adults. Even among the guests, fewer than 15 were below the age of 20.
This is not a Parliament where the voices of the teenage demographic are heard. If you want to hear the issues that we are talking about, you need to be tech-savvy and respect social media. Pay attention to Instagram, Twitter and TikTok – that is where you will hear the voice of teenagers. These are the same spaces you should use to be heard by teenagers.
We noticed that this Youth Parliament did not do much to promote the session (or engage with young people during the session) by using these platforms effectively.
We have a lot to say. The issues we are talking about include racism in schools, inequality, mental health issues, disability and LGBTQIA+ representation, the Covid-19 pandemic and the schooling crisis, and gender-based violence. We do not always agree, but we do talk. In this Youth Parliament session, the three-hour mark passed before any of these issues were discussed. For young people, it is not just what we talk about, but how we use language. Language is used to oppress, and we know the history as well as the impact of language. The misgendering of LGBTQIA+ activist Tebogo Makwati, who was one of the speakers at the event, by Members of Parliament referring to them as “he” or “him”, was mishandled at best and transphobic at worst.
I will not easily forget our youngest Member of Parliament, Itumeleng Ntsube, ridiculing the speaker, visibly laughing and continuing to misgender another human being after supposedly apologising. This conduct is not tolerable for me or my peers and such conduct could never represent us.
The most troubling aspect of the session, for me, was the rules and procedure of Parliament. One of the guests asked if Parliament was above the Constitution, in reference to the discriminatory behaviour of the MPs during the session. The answer given by Parliament that “Parliament is not governed by the high courts of the land” was astonishing to me. But MPs clearly believe this.
The programme was delayed by 20 minutes to discuss party regalia, when it is an established rule of the House that party regalia cannot be worn. To be honest, there were many points of orders about points of order and less time to discuss and listen to the views of young people.
I was, however, encouraged by some of the real discussions that did take place. There were some strong solutions raised, including going digital, the importance of e-commerce within the job sector and creating better access to those spaces for the South African population.
Another example is the conversation about language equality in education and the importance of truly diversifying the languages in which students can learn and be taught.
Unfortunately, there did not seem to be enough people in the room who had the power to ensure implementation. There was a lack of discussion around budgets and the direct result of that was a show of class privileges. How can you discuss going digital without addressing the costs of data and technology?
As a representative of The Youth’s Truth I must stay true to our message, which highlights not only the importance of involving youth in political conversations, but also addressing structural discrimination and oppression. Sadly, I did not get the impression that the Youth Parliament is a body that can drive that change.
The Youth Parliament needs to be a space for young people to engage with Parliament on the problems we face and the changes we would like to see. To become this kind of space, we must be clear and understand how young people engage, who young people are, and how to reach young people.
Most important, we must move the Youth Parliament from being a hangover of the past to becoming a change-making space for the future. DM/MC
Malaika Minyuku-Gutto is a co-founder of The Youth’s Truth.
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