This webinar was hosted by the Democracy Development Program (DDP) in collaboration with the Mail & Guardian. It featured Tessa Dooms, Director: Jasoro; Pearl Pillay, Director: Youth Lab; and Kristal Duncan Williams, Project Lead: Youth Capital. It was facilitated by Sphamandla Brian Mhlongo, Senior Programmes Officer, DDP.
Mhlongo opened proceedings by providing some context. South African youth (15-34 years old) comprise 35.1% of the population — the largest demographic in the country. The absence of key government programmes that amplifies youth potential for the country’s socio-political development is a worrying trend.
The bulk of youth activism occurs outside of the more institutionalised processes of government, in campaigns and movements targeted at reforming institutional policies and processes, such as the #Fallist movements.
Dooms said youth participation is often seen as a “sideshow” and it is a constant battle for young people’s issues to be heard and seen as part of the mainstream, and this perspective must shift.
The youth are often seen as beneficiaries of government programmes instead of as experts in their own right; “there is a pathologising of youth, which is seen as a time of difficulty”. Young people live in dramatically different circumstances to their parents; they are the real experts on what is happening today.
To get the youth more involved, they must be given more space, instead of having to fight for their place at the table. Young people have “skin in the game” — they are thinking about how they can serve the next generation. “They engage with policy differently to older people, because they have more to lose if things go wrong,” said Dooms.
Pillay said it’s easy to believe that young people are apathetic, but there are no young candidates to vote for; the older generation condescends to younger people, and refuses to let go of power.
The #Fallist movements should have ended the conversations about apathy, but it soon became clear that the state was willing to dish out a lot of violence: when young people did decide to voice their grievances, they were beaten, shot at and expelled. What we are saying to the youth is that “nothing you do is going to be valued unless you opt into the system the way we want you to”.
Spaces must be created for genuine engagement; the youth must be partners, not beneficiaries in youth programmes. If they have a sense of ownership, they are more likely to opt in.
Williams said you can’t expect the youth to be active citizens when most of them don’t have and never have had jobs. People need to provide for themselves; there were more than eight million youths without jobs even before the pandemic, and this destroys their self-esteem. You can’t expect them then to just stand up, especially when they are met with violence and tokenism.
You can’t expect a young person to suddenly become an entrepreneur when they have no business knowledge or experience; we are setting them up for failure. There must be a journey from learning to earning, with support given at all stages. The informal sector must be recognised, as most youngsters are already hustling.
When the National Youth Development Agency hosts talks and invites comments from the youth but does not address them, it is saying “the door is open” but it isn’t really. Youngsters have adapted during the Covid-19 pandemic, and Youth Capital has worked out that WhatsApp is the best way to connect with them; the old-school ways of trying to work with the youth, such as roadshows, are outdated. Instead of boring 100-page policy documents, put out polls on Twitter, use social media; this is where young people are extremely active
Mhlongo asked, do we have a problem of good policies but poor implementation? Dooms answered that we are creating policies without the true participation of the youth. Cogta (Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs) actually engaged with the youth for the first time ever on policymaking recently. There are not enough youth development practitioners and almost no youth development courses; the youth desks in South Africa have few qualified youth practitioners running them.
Pillay said that policy creation is frequently a “tick-box”, and old policies are often simply copied and used again. Williams said the National Youth Policy, for example, was set up with no monitoring and evaluation (M&E) framework set up; comments made on policies are not taken seriously either. The entire process of participation is made difficult by its jargon and academia. Civil society must place more pressure on government to make space for the youth to have a real say in policy creation and implementation.
Williams said most corporates are not prepared to put money into hiring young people, and if they do, they must realise that these young people need mentors. Programmes such as Yes (Youth Employment Service) must interact more with employers and find out what the issues are that youths face, such as transport costs. Organisations such as Yes must learn to work with SMMEs rather than just big corporates, and to do that, they must make their processes simpler.
Dooms said she once had a conversation with an older person who was in the struggle, who said his youth was stripped from his generation, so they were going to do the same to the next. But there has to be a generation that makes sacrifices, that allows the next one to catch up, that sees the value in allowing young people to lead.
Get involved, said Pillay. There is a lot of value in finding like-minded people and collaborating with them. “The youth is often seen as fragmented and in competition; working together, we can figure out a way forward for youth development.”