At the height of South Africa’s tempestuous love affair with whatever Julius Malema chose to sprout, I narrated with some gusto to a friend the story of Malema’s purported appearance on Twitter. I went on to relate Floyd Shivambu’s reaction to questions of Malema’s sudden embrace of social media, “Our people are not on the Internet.” In my telling of the story, Shivambu’s statement was meant as a kind of punchline, a condemnation of the lunacy that seemed to be guiding the ANC Youth
League. Back then, I was agape, to hear my friend unmoved except to agree with Shivambu, “He’s right, the people voting in the ANC are not on Twitter.”
The Malema Twitter account was of course a grand hoax and since then, Shivambu has tentatively shaken hands with the Internet, joining Facebook, the ANC Youth League itself has embraced Twitter with some grace and my friend, his reservations about the disconnect between social media and the real world quite aside, moved to Qatar and joined the social media team at Al Jazeera.
Some of us put a happy spin on the dramatic contrasts that make up South Africa by anointing ourselves the Rainbow Nation, others like to call it bullshit and remind us that this is a country, where one half tweets and the other does not eat. My friend’s approval of Shivambu’s comment was for me, the earliest unravelling of the inherent privilege in the use of social media. It was the earliest realisation that for all my tweets in righteous indignation against the good president’s philandering, there was a fundamental disconnect between the lofty intentions in the ivory tower of social media and the reality on streets I’ve never had to walk. And yet in all my bumbling idealism, naiveté by another name, I still believe South Africa can be changed, if we could just get everybody to get along, hold hands and sing “Shosholoza”, imbuing the nation with a sense of national pride and civic responsibility. And I’m not the only one with such lofty ideas.
This week, the department of basic education and Lead SA, launched the Bill of Responsibilities. The Bill is meant as a tool towards the practical application of the Bill Of Rights in guiding active citizenship among school goers in South Africa. In its intention it cannot be faulted. We need only recall the Jules High School fiasco last year to be reminded that intervention in the dysfunction of many of our public schools is desperately required. The lack of social cohesion among South Africa’s young people needs to be addressed. We desperately need a South Africa in which all the component parts work towards contributing to a cohesive, healthy whole, but can an authoritative document advocated by the sort of people kids are least likely to listen to really influence their behaviour and attitudes?
While it may be unfair for South African youth to be held to the example of the Soweto youth of 1976, the relative affluence afforded to young people in South Africa has seen a terrific shift in focus and ideals among young people in post-Apartheid South Africa. Kanthan Pillay, journalist, MD & CEO of the Yired group of companies, that includes 99.2 Yfm, painted an intriguing picture of South African youth when he spoke about South African youth culture trends at a symposium at the Goethe Institute in Johannesburg during the World Summit on Arts and Culture in 2009. “Young people in South Africa could not be bothered about where the Ivory Coast is, they are fixated instead with the likes of Beyonce”, Pillay told the stupefied audience. And however unnerving those comments are, they are made on the strength of research Pillay describes as, “very accurate,” “very expensive” and “conducted on an ongoing basis that includes the all media and products survey (AMPS)”. YFM took heed of their research, and began approaching their audience as “no different in their thinking to aspirational kids anywhere in the world”. Pillay and YFM began to talk to young people “not on the basis of where they are, but rather where they want to be”. It is an approach that has seen the YFM brand become the definitive voice of urban youth in South Africa.
But the Bill of Responsibilities does not approach kids as a group of disparate people with interests and values of their own. It is in effect just another piece of scripture, another bunch of abstract rules forced down the throats of desultory kids. Pillay’s assessment of the state of South African youth alarms those who fret that Malema could become president, nationalise the mines and gag the media while lining his Italian-tailored pockets with cash from the treasury all because a bunch of kids couldn’t be bothered to lift their heads from their smart phones. And yes, youth, as George Bernard Shaw, intoned, does often feel like a grand waste on the young, but South African youth are certainly not unique in displaying an avowed lack of interest in what goes on around them.
The success of the Bill of Responsibility will be stymied by the lack of voices of young South Africa within it. The type of social change it advocates cannot be achieved by bellowing down at school yards. If students are to be encouraged to be active citizens, they have to be engaged as they are, where they are, find out what their aspirations are and make space for their cares within our agendas. Morality is not going to suddenly become appealing through a document that binds you to “obey the laws of our country, ensure that others do so as well, and contribute in every possible way to making South Africa a great country”. Morality is not easily made attractive, but its cause is not helped by a disregard for the voices of young people to whom we’re preaching active citizenship.
Lead SA must, however, be hailed for trying to do something. While so many have time to complain, few have the time to do anything instead of waiting for the government to fix the mess. But the Bill of Responsibility would serve the cause of civic responsibility better if it was designed as a programme at schools, that allows young people to give voice to their concerns and then, placing these voices within the context of a grand plan for South Africa going forward. Effecting the sort of change it seeks, requires a grassroots movement, a movement that an organisation like Lead SA can lend mobilisation to, but is unable to spark into life by itself. Until then, let us be the change we so desperately want to see in the young. DM