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Beyond Mandela Day - marginalised and unrepresented you...

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Beyond Mandela Day – marginalised and unrepresented youth are mobilising in more effective ways


Precious Nala is Marketing and Stakeholder Relations Executive at the Afrika Tikkun Group.

Mandela Day has been a landmark event in South Africa since 2009, with volunteer work being one of the main thrusts. But these activities are no longer seen as enough by the youth. There is a burning desire to see a change in ways that charity cannot fix.

In recent weeks, we have seen women the world over coalesce to protest against the US Supreme Court overturning the milestone Roe v Wade ruling that included protections for accessing abortion. It felt like Covid-19 had never even touched us, the way in which thousands of people gathered outside the White House and other landmarks worldwide as we did for many causes pre-2020.

Despite large turnouts for the Black Lives Matter protests over the past two years and the various protests against anti-abortion laws in places like Poland, we have seen activism take on a new face – an online one. Locally, we might see this marked change this year and during Mandela Month, as many either take on a new way of protesting or community work through education (or descend into what is known as “slacktivism”).

Nelson Mandela’s birthday – Mandela Day – has been a landmark event in South Africa since 2009 when former president Jacob Zuma’s administration introduced it to motivate nationwide campaigns to get the public involved in charitable activities. The sorts of activities that are listed on the official website are things like volunteering at an animal shelter, donating books to a lower-income area’s library, and painting murals at children’s homes.

But these activities are no longer seen as enough by the youth. There is a burning desire to see a change in ways that charity cannot fix, and this is being done through a movement of the mind rather than the instant gratification that leaves the systems of oppression fundamentally unchanged.

Traditional activist campaigns persist, of course, but now there is a sense that there is far more of a youth-led approach to a lot of causes. The growing surge of youth activism can be underpinned by this generation’s struggles for political, social and economic freedom at a time when young people in South Africa are the most affected by unemployment and underemployment.

The pandemic has meant that the youth’s progress has either been delayed or completely denied and many cannot afford to form families and households, and are unable to become fully independent and partake in the privileges and responsibilities of adult life.

Political marginalisation and a lack of voice have meant the youth have had much reason to rise up and claim their space in a world that has been surging ahead in the West and lagging behind in the Global South due to vast material inequalities.

Despite exclusion from political parties, with the exception of youth leagues in favour of the old guard, youth in South Africa have taken to demonstrations as an effective way of expressing their views on various issues and effecting change within their direct circles of influence.

By using the internet and social media for mobilisation and organising activities, they have been supporting each other during protests and keeping people updated through blogging and popular social media platforms such as TikTok, Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp, Discord, and Instagram. We saw this during the #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall movements with students spearheading demonstrations from all corners of the country.

Given that the foundation was already set with young activists using these platforms for those protests, their being galvanised through social media became stronger under the pandemic with local youth supporting #BlackLivesMatter and their US counterparts through these international channels.

Many young people have taken to mobilising with the likes of Greta Thunberg in her climate change movement via vast information sharing. A study has revealed that people who said they were familiar with Thunberg and her message also felt more confident that they can help mitigate climate change as part of a collective effort, being more willing to take action themselves by contacting elected officials or giving time and money to campaigns.

This online effect is likely because other platforms are not as effective, and the youth, in many cases, do not participate in processes such as elections, neither as candidates nor voters as they feel marginalised and unrepresented and have suffered the most from the outcomes of elections without any considerable change to their life. Voting has indeed lost its appeal among the youth, with the IEC reporting a decline in registration figures among young people, being in line with international trends of comparatively low youth voter registration levels.

There is also the conundrum that youth demonstrations have not allowed young people to directly influence governments and administrations. It is already a challenge for most of these movements to maintain their momentum and establish long-lasting solutions for their initial purpose and objectives.

This can be attributed to the fact that most youth movements are built out of discontent and are developed and coordinated from the streets, with few resources. Hence, they are not strong enough to challenge and disentangle long-established systems that exist among the old guard that refuse to relinquish power.

This Mandela Month, young people have veered away from the established and tried and tested systems of activism. They are forging a new path toward sharing information from newly-written books on race, class, gender, disability, and other intersections of oppression to economic theory that critiques the likes of Marx.

These young people are dissecting our ways of living and imagining new ways of protest through education and sharing thoughts on decolonising the mind and soul through awareness.

People who would usually give up a Saturday morning to volunteer at a shelter are no longer willing to placate the current system by placing a Band-Aid over a chasmic wound. Even extending the usual 67 minutes of activism to a whole month is not a solution.

Perhaps we should deviate from activism for a limited time such as Mandela Month and start approaching activism through knowledge because these young people are not here for quick fixes.

They want to fundamentally change their future and they’re prepared to do whatever it takes to get there. DM


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  • The first thing they can do is to start by doing constructive things to improve their living conditions , like digging wells in their villages
    Secondly they can register and vote the ANC out and vote in the DA who actually deliver and understand how to grow a globally competitive economy
    Protest alone merely is distraction from engaging in positive self help actions.
    Look at how successful societies organised themselves and quit the colonial blame game

    • I agree Miles, the blame game is always pointless. The youth can self organise AND be creative. Whether this becomes a positive or negative spiral remains to be seen. NGOs are desperately trying to fill in for absent parents and a broken social system. Not to mention the leadership vacuum.

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