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Lessons from the Class of 76: Youth is not wasted on the young – it is wasted by governance through the Politics of the Belly


Noxolo Ntaka is a senior researcher for the Nedbank Group. She holds two master’s degrees in African and Political studies from the University of Oxford and Wits University respectively. She was part of the founding class of the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls and is an alumnus of the South Africa-Washington International Programme (SAWIP), interning at the US Congress in Washington DC. She was named as part of the Mail & Guardian’s 2019 top 200 most promising young South Africans under 35.

How are today’s young people meant to thrive in a country riddled by inequality and politicians who, instead of prioritising those economically marginalised, subscribe to a Politics of the Belly kind of governance, benefiting only their inner circles?

I have often heard the phrase “youth is wasted on the young” – usually in reference to young people from my generation, otherwise referred to as “South Africa’s Lost Generation”. These are the words often used by our parents, grandparents and politicians who grew up in the apartheid era.

These sentiments often go hand-in-hand with a comparison with the young people of 1976, particularly because of the perception that young people today do not have a “common struggle” that unites them and are rather entitled and privileged. This comparison further goes on to highlight that youngsters today have failed to grab hold of the opportunities around them, expecting to be handed things on a “silver platter”.

Three months ago, South Africa celebrated the 45th anniversary of the June 16 Soweto Uprising – a day meant to commemorate the bravery of the young people of 1976 in their fight against Bantu education and the apartheid state’s introduction of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction in all schools. Unfortunately, this day has on many occasions been used as a scapegoat by the state to highlight young people, and those of 1976, without reflecting on the role the government has played in perpetuating poverty and inequality, as well as disadvantaging young people. 

President Cyril Ramaphosa’s 16 June 2021 speech spoke about the challenges the young face today, saying “we [government] are putting young people at the centre of our national recovery”, referring to the country’s high youth unemployment rate. 

The Quarterly Labour Force Survey (QLFS) of the first quarter of 2021 indicated that young people were struggling to secure employment in the South African labour market. The official unemployment rate was 32,6%. The rate was 46,3% among people aged between 15 and 34, implying that almost one in every two young people in the labour force did not have a job in the first quarter of 2021. Statistics South Africa has further indicated that those between 15 and 24 are more vulnerable in the labour market with an unemployment rate of more than 63%. 

It is evident that employment opportunities for young people are minimal and, coupled with South Africa’s unequal education system, this means young people today are already on the back foot as they try to pursue their dreams.

A report by Amnesty International characterised South Africa’s education system as marred by inadequate infrastructure, overcrowded classrooms and relatively poor education outcomes. High unemployment among young people and a broken education system have unfortunately created a breeding ground for poverty and inequality, thus disadvantaging young people.

It is for these reasons that painting today’s generation as “privileged”, “entitled” and at times “lazy” is unfair. These words leave little room for interrogating how the current socioeconomic and political landscape has not propelled young people, but placed them a few steps backwards – particularly the economically disadvantaged.

Coupled with the reality of unemployment and our education system, young people – and South Africans at large – have also had to bear witness to increasing levels of corruption in government while trying to survive a pandemic. In the past few months we have seen government officials displaying a clear disregard for the law and governance and an unwillingness to show accountability and transparency.

Covid-19 has exposed the inequalities South Africa faces. More than that it has highlighted how corruption not only erodes citizens’ trust of the public sector, and has misdirected public funds and taxes that are critical for the country’s development. This money should have been used towards mitigating further inequality in our basic education system; establishing projects geared towards infrastructure; economically advancing young people and providing entrepreneurial opportunities as well as basic services for communities.

Instead, South Africa’s socioeconomic and political landscape has been characterised by corruption scandals across all three spheres of government (national, provincial and local).

The recent alleged irregularities and nepotism in the Covid-19 personal protective equipment (PPE) procurement process is a glaring example of such corruption. Earlier in 2021, a Special Investigating Unit (SIU) report revealed that 25 officials had been implicated in PPE tender irregularities, highlighting the role that political pressure and influence play in the awarding of tenders to particular companies.

Furthermore, the pandemic created a “window of opportunity” for emboldened behaviour which abused emergency measures that were meant to provide economic relief. This included a R500-billion relief package to provide food parcels, a temporary social grant increase for more than 16 million beneficiaries, and the Temporary Employee/Employer Relief Scheme (TERS) for those whose salaries were affected.

As Corruption Watch has previously mentioned, public servants in South Africa should not be doing business with the state. However, previous months have seen the abuse of TERS and theft of food parcels in an attempt to sway political influence. We also saw how emergency procurement regulations allowed for government officials to benefit to the tune of millions of rands through questionable dealings with “new” and opportunistic companies that suddenly had an interest in the PPE market.

All of these measures have unfortunately fallen victim to public officials who have sought to benefit – on a grand scale – from resources that were meant to help those in need.

Corruption on a grand scale is not a surprise to many South Africans; it is embedded in the fabric of our government across the board. At the Financial Times Africa Summit in London in 2019, Ramaphosa said corruption had cost the country between R1-trillion and R1.5-trillion – a devastating amount that could have potentially been put towards positively affecting the lives of young people across the country.

The unfortunate reality, however, is that in a country that continues to grapple with poverty, inequality and poor access to equal education, those who bear the brunt of this unending cycle of corruption are those most vulnerable, particularly women, children and young people.

Bearing all of this in mind, how then are young people expected to thrive when the reality of South Africa’s democratic dispensation is not reflective of what the young people of 1976 sought and fought for so that generations after them would have better opportunities?

How then are today’s young people meant to thrive when faced with the realities of a country riddled by inequality and politicians who, instead of prioritising those economically marginalised, subscribe to a Politics of the Belly kind of governance – benefiting only their inner circles?

Perhaps, then, we should not be drawing parallels between the generations of 1976 and today – nor should the older generation and the government romanticise the achievements of the Soweto Uprising to the extent that it is used to silence young people today by painting them as “lacking a willingness to grab hold of opportunities”.

Despite these challenges, young people today are not idle. There are numerous youth-led initiatives and young people in South Africa seeking to make a tangible impact, such as Emmanuel Bonoko’s #Back2Kasi (Kasi Entrepreneurs) which hosts a series of seminars where South African business heavyweights interact with young people in Tembisa, Soweto, Alexandra and Cosmo City, among other places.

Another brilliant example is Asiphe Funda, a law clerk at the Constitutional Court who has worked for the Equal Education Law Centre and interned for SECTION27, and who, despite her circumstances, seeks to work towards a more socially just society. Additionally, Africa Matters, the South African Institute of International Affairs and Yali Regional Leadership Centres are among the organisations working towards providing opportunities for young people to excel. However, they cannot do it alone.

More than anything, public officials need to reflect and look deeply at themselves before labelling young people as lazy, not united and privileged. It is precisely because of what started in 1976 that one would have thought, 26 years into democracy, that the lives of those marginalised would be better.

With the Covid-19 pandemic having hit South Africa’s economy and increased unemployment, a bleak reality faces young people today. It is important not only to reflect on the lived experiences of many young people, but also to implement change and work with civil society and the younger generation.

Addressing issues facing young people should be highlighted not only during Youth Month. Nor should young people be tokenised by inviting them to panel discussions hosted by government departments, when no real change is being felt on the ground. According to mid-year estimates of 2019, people aged 18 to 34 constituted a third of the population (17.84 million) in South Africa. Despite this substantial number, the implementation of policy changes does not reflect its significance.

Engaging and advancing young people, particularly in matters relating to policy, is important. It is equally important to make space for skilled and equipped young people in spaces of government. The future of a country is only as prepared as its young people, and right now we are failing tremendously. DM


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