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Seeking solutions: How to become a catalyst for change for South Africa’s youth

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Dr Bridget Horner is a lecturer in architecture at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, where she coordinates the first-year undergraduate programme. She holds a doctorate focusing on the future aspirations of students within and for the higher education space. She is interested in interdisciplinary collaborations that can enable student development to be more relevant and connected to the community they serve, and is passionate about the future development of the youth of South Africa.

As a mother and academic, I felt a huge noose around my neck for my family’s future, the students I am responsible for educating and for my economic wellbeing in this country. I want to loosen the grip of this noose, but I feel paralysed and struggle to breathe. My hope lies in my son not being alone in his desire to effect change.

It was in the early 1980s in South Africa, at the Hobie Cat clubhouse on the Strand beachfront. She had a black rucksack from which she pulled out a packet of M&M sweets she had got all the way from America. Teasing us, she said that she could not wait to eat them ALL later by HERSELF. Wide-eyed, we kids stared and wondered what these exotic sweets would taste like. We knew of the taste of Smarties, but not of these sweets. We did not have to wait long for the bitter taste of sweet theft, as these delicacies were promptly stolen by one of our crew and dished out quickly between us for immediate taste-testing.

I did not even question why we took these stolen goods; I just popped them into my mouth. I knew I had to try them, no matter what. I was justifying my actions that I was doubly deprived by both not being able to have them and the desire to have them.

At the tender age of 10, this deed was my first act of participating in theft, and the slow-brewing recognition of the guilt as it swelled up inside me thereafter. The aftertaste left an overwhelming sense of doubt as to whether my actions were indeed justified.

I used this story as a means to explain to my 13-year-old son the looting in parts of our country over one dark week in July 2021 – attempting to illustrate the justification behind the act of looting both for the haves and the have nots. The looting was not just by the poor and economically vulnerable, but it was multi-layered looting at all levels – beginning with corruption at the highest levels of governance over several years, descending to the general public mayhem (but not by all) over one week.

That week showed the ever-broadening schisms in our society of those who chose to participate as a means to put food on the table and those who decided to take what they could as “everyone else is doing it, so why can’t I?” attitude. 

The looting further served as a cloak to mask a clearly orchestrated plan to disrupt cities and towns (within KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng) to create a state of anarchy. Failing to do this, the race card was drawn, turning races against one another to further fuel ethnic and racial tension and violence. The light in this dark turn of events was the communities that stood together to support one another and protect their neighbourhoods. However, this too harboured some creepy-crawlies in the shadows, revealing festering racial tensions, gun-toting, paintball-popping civilians, and fearmongering.

My son was less interested in why these events of the week of 11 July happened; he wanted to know how to solve this problem. An activity at school a few weeks earlier established a basis for our conversations. In response to the question, “where would you like to live when you are older?”, he was one of only two children in a class of 23 who said that he would like to live in South Africa. Other pupils noted America, the UK or European countries.

The school he attends is a government school located between a middle-class suburb and a township, capturing a demographically and economically diverse body of pupils. Few of these children have likely ever left the borders of South Africa and are most likely reflecting on what they have heard at home and on what they have seen on social media and television. After hearing his response, I was impressed by my son’s commitment to this country when so many of his peers were dreaming of a future in faraway places.

During the looting, my son surprised me with his continued commitment to this country, noting that he did not want to leave South Africa. “The country has problems,” he said, but he wants to be part of the solution to affect change. Nagging at my conscience but clamped by my motherly instincts was not to make light of this incident and try to pacify it with Band-Aid platitudes that “things will come right in the end”. He is too old and too intelligent for this kind of response. I felt compelled as a mother to give my son a sense of how this future could pan out for him.

But he was acutely aware that, like climate change, something needs to be done – whether it affects us directly or not – as it soon will affect us all, as it did over that week. He knows the legacy we leave will not be worth the planet it is served on if we sit idle and do nothing.

How do I help my son realise his ambitions and not crumble at the thought of a country gone so badly wrong, now lying scarred, festering and exposed? What long-term impact will this event and those of many years of prior looting likely have for his future and so many of our country’s youth?

As a mother and academic, I felt a huge noose around my neck for my family’s future, the students I am responsible for educating and for my economic wellbeing in this country. I want to loosen the grip of this noose, but I feel paralysed and struggle to breathe. My hope lies in my son not being alone in his desire to effect change and be part of the solution this country desperately needs.

I truly believe our children and young people will be part of the solution we seek – if they are not, we really don’t have a future in or for this country.

But I am also very aware that we may be placing too much pressure on our youth who already carry with them their own baggage of the past – a family that cannot support them financially or emotionally, first-time entrants to university with much pressure to succeed but also expectations to provide for their families and study, dreaming big dreams but facing an uncertain future with slim employment opportunities post higher education.  

All of these pasts, presents and futures must be tumbling inside their minds and bodies.

So my question then is, how do we instil a sense in ALL our youth that there is a future for ALL of them in this country, and that this future should not be achieved at the expense of others and other things?

As citizens and educators of this country’s youth, how do we provide a roadmap to a potential future for our youth?

How can we begin to become the catalyst to effect real significant changes for the youth of this country? So that we can start to conceive, believe and build a future for all of us in this country? This is not the radical economic transformation as touted by activists, but real educational transformation that begins deep down in our inner psyche as a belief in our future and permeates out of our soul into our everyday reality and lived experience and filters through into everything that we engage with, animate and inanimate. DM

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  • A beautiful piece, Bridget.

    There are so many unsung heroes in this country, quietly doing something to help one or two young people. This gives me hope….

  • Thank you for voicing your thoughts and questions that many of us often just think about…”So my question then is, how do we instil a sense in ALL our youth that there is a future for ALL of them in this country, and that this future should not be achieved at the expense of others and other things?

    We, South Africans, need reminders that this country belongs to all of us who live in it…that the President is the leader of South Africa first – he needs to demonstrate this for us to believe and to give ALL our youth that sense of belonging, to support them and for them to believe that they are important to the future of this country.

  • …”but real educational transformation” I think here you have hit the mail on the head! I think we need to start right at the bottom – to me the first most vital part is to re-instill family values. To re-instill a work ethic, a desire for education and advancement. I believe that sound basic principals like these break the bondage of “victimhood” and guide the youth to the future.