Antonio Gramsci, the Italian philosopher and communist politician, was on the minds of young Marxists recently as they recalled the 91st anniversary of his arrest by Mussolini’s fascist regime on 9 November 1921. One of the biggest ironies of history, of course, was to unfold in the wake of his arrest.
“For 20 years we must stop this brain from functioning,” said the prosecutor at his trial — and yet Gramsci went on to write his seminal Prison Notebooks while imprisoned, which included the much-noted concept of cultural hegemony. Gramsci proved once again what our heroes here in South Africa and freedom fighters the world over proved: That while the prisons of the oppressor could imprison the body they could not imprison the mind.
Gramsci was 35 and a member of the Italian parliament when he was arrested.
While the work and thoughts of Gramsci would scoff at the liberal-democratic milieu South Africans find themselves in, Gramsci, no less, would agree that the role played by young people in politics is irreplaceable. Youth participation in elections, whether as representatives or as voters, and the body politic in general should not merely be about the prospects of political parties or their sometimes narrow agendas.
Rather the involvement and participation of young people should fundamentally be more about qualified representation in the affairs of young people in particular and the affairs of society in general, whether this is through public policy formulation, governance or administration of the state and its institutions.
It is suggested that the median age for South Africa, in 2017, was 27. This means that there are exactly the same number of people, in South Africa, under the age of 27 as there are people over the age of 27. Globally, this age is 30. In established economies such as Japan and Germany this age is 47 while in Italy and the United Kingdom it is 46 and 40 respectively. The European Union has a median age of 43, while it is suggested that the median age for Africa, in 2012 at least, was 19.
Emerging economies such as China and India have median ages of 37 and 28 respectively, while Russia and Brazil are at 40 and 32 respectively. In Africa, the Seychelles has the eldest median age of 35, still relatively young, while Niger has the youngest in the world, at 15.
Given South Africa’s median age then of 27 as well as its life expectancy of nearly 63, the age of the population in South Africa, like most of the continent and the developing world, remains relatively young. In fact, some statistics, according to Statistics South Africa, would indicate that children under 10 in South Africa account for 25% of the national population whereas this figure is less than 10% in countries such as China, the United States, Germany and Japan.
The youthfulness of our population, both nationally and as a continent, therefore presents itself both as a blessing and a curse.
For example, recently China relaxed its one-child policy precisely because it realised that it would be confronted with an ageing population if it did not intervene immediately. With its eyes on neighbouring India’s young population and its linked steady economic growth, China realised the negative consequences suffered by economies such as Germany and Japan, as it overtook them in economic size, precisely because of their ageing populations, among other factors.
As a result, countries such as China and India have benefited from what economists term the demographic divide precisely because they were able to intervene and complement the size of their young populations.
On the other hand, while the demographic divide holds a socio-economic blessing, a largely young population that is not producing the necessary socio-economic gains could pose a threat to the country. It’s worse, as commonly found in South Africa, if these young people suffer most from the challenges of poverty, inequality and unemployment.
Examples of factors which will contribute to this increased risk include the prevailing problems that have been highlighted in our basic schooling system, contributing to widespread drop-outs, the poor quality of the Grade 12 pass rate, the frighteningly high unemployment rate among people aged 18 to 24, the increased social discord among youth, as well as the overwhelming need to provide young people with their first job opportunity.
While these concerns may be all interlinked and in unison reflect South Africa’s most dire socio-economic problem, ironically it is young people themselves who must play a major part in realising South Africa’s long-term socio-economic potential. The long-term economic success of South Africa, on both a relative and absolute basis, will largely depend on how the youth integrate into the political economy which is really a function of education and job creation.
A vibrant and well-educated workforce is a major advantage for any country. Sadly, a discouraged and poorly educated youth is a recipe for a political-socio-economic disaster. This was most vividly displayed by the so-called Arab Spring and the tragic after-effects of these uprisings, staged in the main by young people. Today, the lot of young people in those countries is not better than before 2011.
Dynamic and vibrant youth participation in civic, community and political affairs, as well as meaningful socio-economic participation, often bears a direct correlation to the likelihood of active participation in the act of voting.
Conversely, a disengaged and socio-economically disenfranchised youth population correlates with apathetic participation in the electoral process —thus possibly resulting in the election of governments with political mandates which in a sense lack legitimacy, given the marginal participation of young people as a major constituency of the overall population. Even more so, the urgency to tackle the challenges of youth is depleted.
Before young people can vote, they need to register. Correctly, this is a preoccupation of the Independent Electoral Commission as the Chapter Nine institution constitutionally mandated to facilitate our elections, but it must also be the preoccupation of business, labour and the rest of civil society, not just political parties. In other words, this needs to be a societal priority. As leaders, we cannot make calls for young people to be at the cutting edge of a more youth-focused government if young people themselves are not voting in the first place.
Beyond the actual elections, voting allows young citizens an even greater opportunity to hold Members of Parliament, members of the provincial legislatures and political parties accountable during their term of office through the various mechanisms that our system provides. For example, young people must ensure that MPs and MPLs make their constituency offices active spaces for youth development. As part of electoral participation young people must also ensure that they contribute to the engagements around the drafting of party manifestos and be able to hold parties to account in this regard.
It is important that young people engage political formations on the kind of candidates they are putting up and then familiarise themselves with who these are. For in the end this will inform their choices, but will also allow for direct accountability.
While the young MP Gramsci might not approve of our liberalism, he most certainly would have urged the participation and ultimate leadership of young people, by young people and for young people. DM
Khalid Sayed is the provincial chairperson of the ANC Youth League in the Western Cape.