Defend Truth


Bringing young people into the mainstream requires an epistemic turn


Busani Ngcaweni is Director-General of the National School of Government, South Africa.

As youth development activists and practitioners we invested years, sweat and enormous resources moving South Africa away from the disparaging “lost generation” characterisation. Young people are not lost. They don't need to be found. They need quality and decolonised education which they have been calling for; they need training and economic opportunities that locate them at the centre of inclusive growth.

The nomenclature characterising the crises of youth development in South Africa can be depressing – to the extent that it dismembers young people from the mainstream into the margins of society where their socio-economic condition is blamed on them.

Young people in South Africa are, once again, seen as a problem, wholly responsible for their predicament of mediocre education outcomes, unemployment, the burden of disease driven by runaway HIV infection rates, growing nihilism and social exclusion. This, in spite of the country adopting a progressive national youth policy in 2015 and the signing of many multi-sectoral pledges like the Skills and Youth Employment Accords in 2014, facilitated by Nedlac.

This phenomenon of dismemberment originates from the knowledge system that explains what lies at the heart of the crises and the denial of the Marxist adage that the weight of history imposes itself on the present. The locus of enunciation is neo-liberalism which exonerates capitalism (championed by both the state and capital) for the crises of poverty, racism, alterity and inequality.

There is growing global consensus (eg at G20, WEF, OECD, World Bank and IMF levels) that prevailing relations between capital and society are unsustainable and largely produce the prevailing inequality predicament (as dubbed by the 2002 UN report). Yet for the local level popular oppositional parlance, the opposite is manifest.

The blame is placed squarely on those disfavoured by prevailing capitalism’s indifference to what sustains democracy, ie the majority must fully enjoy the socio-economic dividend of a free society in a democratic dispensation.

In the re-emergent neo-conservative narrative, limited attention is paid to the capitalist and socio-political matrices of power that disenfranchises, dismembers, distorts, dismisses, dismantles, disregards, denounces, distances, disrespects and disempowers young people.

This “dissing” continues unabated and has recently re-entered our political lexicon, chanted in naked a-historical and screeching intonations by those who occupy opposition benches in our Parliament.

A set of ideas about young people in society is generated into a knowledge structure that channels our posture towards the crises of marginality and consequently, shapes our national response. Hence the sounding of warning bells about this creeping disempowering nomenclature that dis-members our youth.

Behavioural scientists remind us that what people say about us influences what we think of ourselves, how we relate to the outside world and what we eventually become. If you grew up being told that you are ugly and your nickname is mubi (the ugly one), your whole being will be that of mubi thus influencing and shaping your relationships with the outside world as a mubi (the less desirable, the ugly one).

What do young people have to loose if their socio-economic exclusion is called a “time bomb”and they are labelled a “lost generation”?

How deadly can a lost timer be on a bomb!

Let us briefly discuss these resurrected pejoratives for ease of reference starting with the most unfortunate “dissing” of young people by the official Opposition during this year’s debate of the state of the nation address.

We saw many young opposition members (their recruitment is similar to job recruitment for professional jobs) exclaiming “lost generation” in their interventions!

Even their ignorance of progressive youth development approaches and absence from the global youth development movement won’t help them escape the harsh reaction to their dissing and dismembering.

Arrogance of ignorance, as Sabelo Ndlovu-Gatsheni reminds us, is as dangerous as political indifference.

By referring to young people as the lost generation some in our polity are completely oblivious of the history and struggles against such “dissing”. This after we fought and won the struggle against such dismemberment of young people in the late 90s and early 2000s.

There is a mountain of political and academic literature on this “lost generation” debate including writings by Frederick van Zyl Slabbert, Clayton Peters, David Evarret, Febe Potgieter, Steve Mokoena, Malusi Gigaba, Fikile Mbalula, Malose Kekana, Carmel Marock, Edith Phaswana, Jabu Mbalula, Amuzweni Ngoma, Bongani Mkongi, Nomi Nkondlo, Nhlakanipho Ntombela, and Yoliswa Makhasi among many. These works debunked this notion of lost generation and exposed it for what it is: a neo-construct purposely chosen to demean young people and cast them as helpless pendulums, without agency.

In fact the United Nation’s Programme of Action for 2005 and Beyond rejected this lost generation nonsense, instead calling for governments and politicians to use empowering language that affirms young people as agents of change. Some in the opposition benches have access to academics in their ranks who’ll do well to help them study the issues they pronounce on to fully comprehend the unintended consequences of their subjectifying slogans.

As youth development activists and practitioners we invested years, sweat and enormous resources moving South Africa away from the disparaging “lost generation” characterisation.

Young people are not lost. They don’t need to be found. They need quality and decolonised education which they have been calling for; they need training and economic opportunities that locate them at the centre of inclusive growth.

Equally, the “ticking time bomb” framing is unfortunate as it carries negative connotations and projects national imagination. There is nothing affirming about it. It conjures up images of the majority of the population being on destructive standby mode; worst if the same is lost.

Whatever history and political theory tell us about the scourge of youth unemployment, making them responsible for the crisis of the political economy of the post-colony, is unfortunate and politically myopic.

In fact about five years ago the African Development Bank introduced a more affirming concept of the youth bulge being a “demographic dividend”. By doing so, they recognised the value of young people in society – using their numbers and energy as a strength rather than a curse or a lost time bomb waiting to explode.

The bank’s positive outlook requires progressive youth development interventions recognising their energies and aspirations, instead of fire extinguishers and bomb squads who don riot gear.

In this connection, the challenge for governments and politicians in general is how do we advance policy responses that help society realise and maximises the value of the demographic dividend into a lasting legacy rather than pursue measures that contain young people given their perceived potential danger.

These are all but part of the knowledge network, a set of ideas being inscribed in our consciousness about the potential and dangers of young people in society. Hence some see fees must fall protesters as “brats” and “agents provocateurs” who are destroying the system instead of recognising them as activists fighting for socio-economic inclusion in a capitalist society that is sometimes indifferent to historical disabilities like the legacy of Bantu Education which constrains young people from fully enjoying the democratic dividend.

We call for an epistemic turn because what we know shapes our political attitude (ideology) towards national issues like youth unemployment which is primarily a product of the political economy. This in turn influences public policy.

In the end, societies become what they imagine themselves to be. Once narratives that demean, cast aspersions on individuals, based on ideological orientation take root, it will be very difficult to root them out of our national imagination, public discourse and meta consciousness.

Eventually, young people, being these self-driven agents of change, will push back with consequences that are too harrowing to contemplate.

As the youth month moves towards closure, it is important that as South Africans, in all our spheres of influence, we embrace the agency of young people thus giving back their ontological density; their being and belonging. In fact young people fully understand the causal relationship between capitalism’s matrices of power and their alterity or marginalisation in all aspects of their being. They have no doubt that capitalism as policy and praxis is generally anti-black.

To outlive Aids in the 21st century, for example, requires an epistemic turn which places young people at the centre of solutions-finding exercise instead of pitying them as inevitable victims of the epidemic. At least ongoing research we are doing with blessers and blessees has confirmed as much: the majority of young people make informed choices, their consequences notwithstanding. We need to learn unlearn our prejudices against young people and take collective responsibility for their marginalisation through poor policy outcomes and political nomenclature. DM

Busani Ngcaweni is editor of Sizonqoba: Outliving Aids in Southern Africa available at the HSRC book store and He works in The Presidency and writes in his personal capacity.


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