How does one measure a successful democracy? One would say by the quality of public participation in the process of how they are governed. A very important component of democracy is participation that is reflective of the demographics which exist in the country to advance and maintain a climate of accountability.
The reason why monarchists have been dismissed as dictators in tribal costume is that the world has reached a level of advancement where one has to justify and demonstrate their value to the people in order to lead them. South Africa, whose democracy is 28 years old, is at the stage where the people are rethinking and refocusing about how their government best serves them.
Currently, there is the crisis of ageism in leadership representation. Ageism is a deliberate exclusion of people based on prejudice about their age. To the youth it appears as an unhealthy obsession with seniority amongst senior citizens where one’s seniority is assumed to be directly linked to their capabilities. South Africa has a very ambitious constitution, which has on many occasions been described as the perfect constitution. This constitution protects every person’s right to not be unfairly discriminated against directly or indirectly on the basis of their age. Direct discrimination is someone directly letting you know that they are impeding your access to a certain thing or position based solely off your age. Indirect discrimination takes various forms and manifests itself in different ways. In the case of indirect discrimination, one does not need to tell you that they excluded you because of age. It can look like the role that you want having a precedent of electing people within a certain age range. In indirect discrimination, the impacts are that the face of the organization or a certain body become a source of intimidation for those who may have aspired to occupy the same spaces. Indirect discrimination is a result of stereotypes particularly in leadership. In present day South Africa, it does not even need to be legislated in order for its effects to be experienced. It manifests itself through alienating aspiring leaders to the margins of society where their voices are unheard.
What ageism looks like in South Africa is that there is a mutual distrust between young people and the political system. The root of the mutual distrust is the failure to understand that intersectionality is paramount in building intergenerational relationships through leadership. There is an unintentional failure to see that the existence of different age groups at the same time does not necessarily mean that these groups are unable to coexist and learn from each other.
Currently the median age for members of parliament in South Africa is 54. 9% of the National Assembly’s member of parliaments fall within the youth category that is the ages of 35 and younger. In this environment one observes a lack of youth participation in civic processes. Is it necessarily because of the fact that they may feel that their leaders are out of touch with the concerns of their generation? If that question is answered in the positive, how many steps have been skipped by the responsible bodies in terms of fostering a climate of inclusive leadership?
Barriers of entry are established by those already in power, that is permitting the youth to access a space that is already controlled by older citizens in power. The barriers of entry into intergenerational leadership can only be overcome through leaders who are selfless. An economic theory that sums this up perfectly is ceteris paribus which is translated to if everything happens as expected. It would be a very lazy way of theorizing if we assume that it is just as simple as saying that we should create compulsory quotas to include young people. This would be working under the assumption that they would genuinely work for the needs of young people. It would also assert that other factors such as tokenism and being overlooked would be absent.
What tokenism looks like is being allowed access into a space while one’s opinion in that space holds little to no weight. Assuming that qualifications are the barriers of entry into a space, this is not true for the youth of South Africa. Many young people are taking the traditional trajectory academically by advancing their education beyond high school to pursue tertiary education and advancing their education beyond their undergraduate degrees. The pursuit of knowledge, particularly one that is specific to leadership is clearly not absent. This is in the areas of development studies, international relations, political philosophy, national security studies etc.
Now how do we curb that mutual distrust? The first step is doing away with the assumption that the youth will not have to convince those who hold the keys to the door that their presence is of value. Using the example of one of the most degrading experiences in South Africa, which was apartheid, it is not that the apartheid leaders were not aware that participation of black people in the economy was going to improve the lives of the excluded majority. They did not care, and they were doing well in so far as providing a good life for their intended market. That is why it took force, boycotts, riots, and international intervention to restore the country back to its owners. The youth participate in politics through those means as a way of drawing the leaders’ attention to their needs. Introducing the idea of efficient leadership through participation that reflects the country’s demographics is based on the expectation that the people who are holding the keys to make that happen exist in that position with good intentions.
With most ruling parties, the political campaigns are rooted in liberation struggle remorse. They are selling a story of their lived experiences, and this is something that a certain demographic can identify with. This was a traumatic experience, and they always reassure the people that they would not like to return to the dark past. What is overlooked however are the secondary victims who grew up in a democracy and are experiencing problems that are specific to them. It has to be said that in order for one to be seen as a legitimate leader they have to show evidence of battle scars. They have to be able to tell a story of extreme anguish and suffering. The problem with this is that it invalidates the lived experiences of those who are excluded from the liberation struggle story. In occupying the same country at the same time and experiencing it differently it is also important to look at the fact that they are still residents of South Africa who are deserving of representation in the contexts in which they experience the hand of public service.
Intersectionality means that whether one is white or a person of color, young or old by virtue living under a democratically elected government are entitled to efficient service delivery. Participation does not start and end at voting as voting happens every five years. One should not have to wait five years to hold their leaders accountable and to improve their lives. Their lives do not pause and start again when it is voting season.
One should also be cognizant of the position they occupy in society thus acting according to their proximity to the problem. Young people should take active steps in holding their municipalities accountable to them. One should know the role of the people who are there to serve them and whether they are doing their job correctly.. Democracy is rooted in mutual participation. There is a need to learn to ask the right questions and take those who do not attend to them efficiently to task.
Rorisang Moyo is a Bachelor of Arts in Law graduate currently studying towards her Postgraduate law degree at the department of Law University of Pretoria. She writes in her personal capacity.