How can young people shape SA’s democratic future?

Much hopes and expectations have been placed on South Africa’s youth growing up in our still young democracy. The daily struggle for access to the economy, job employment and education are some of the many challenges facing the youth on a daily basis. Young people are often told “the future is yours”, “we fought hard for this freedom” and that “born frees expect everything to be handed to them”. Yet is this actually the case within the current political and economic climate facing South Africans and a government often criticised for not creating ample, efficient structures to facilitate skills development and empowerment programmes or provide platforms for critical engagement with South Africa’s youth?

We’ve witnessed a significant period of youth dissent and activism calling for change with many raising their voices speaking strongly about issues that affect them. Within a growing global protest movement and calls for systematic change many are finding their own unique voices of expression. We’ve seen this through criticism of decisions made without their consultation or participation through movements like #RhodesMustFall, #OpenStellenbosch and #DecolonisingWits. Young people have mobilised to take on old, entrenched systems rather seeking to create new solutions for themselves through asserting their power as youth demanding for their voices to be heard and counted, something which has been somewhat absent amongst South African youth in the past 21 years.

Young people have often been used as pawns to forward political agendas and campaigns. One needs only think of the recent incident of bricks thrown at a gathering at Tshwane University of Technology between the Economic Freedom Fighters and South African Students Congress members as an example. This point was made by Olmo von Meijenfeldt, Executive Director at Democracy Works Foundation, who addressed a group of digital interns at Livity Africa, a youth content agency that develops platforms, campaigns and social change, in Johannesburg on August 26 2015.

Von Meijenfeldt also made reference to South Africa being “the protest capital of the world”. “There are protests every day in this country, more increasingly violent with libraries and cars being burnt, shops being looted and in some occasions head on conflict with police. Worryingly, the crowds at these protests are getting younger and younger, a symptom of South Africa’s growing unemployment”.

South Africa’s “infant democracy” is taking strain for various reasons including a current leadership having never experienced living in a democratic state before and having taken over a state that only provided services to a minority of the population, according to von Meijenfeldt. Making the point that democracy was not just about voting every four to five years, “citizens are more than just voters” and that more needed to be done to strengthen democracy after heading to the polls and voting.

Speaking to the sentiment that young people expected “hand-outs”, he said unfortunately for a very long time government has been promising to provide material benefits to their electorate which had created the expectation in the first place. Von Meijenfeldt reminded the young interns in the room that civil society participation in fighting inequality and unemployment was vital but, “the violent element was not constructive”.

He suggested that more dialogue was necessary and a more sustainable way of solving issues was required. He agreed that right now, the youth was starting to talk truth to power, very loudly at that.

Democracy Works Foundation considers the youth an important part of building a democratic culture, “there is no democracy without a powerful youth voice and youth participation”. Von Meijenfeldt left the interns with a message to organise democratically and start working towards a future they can be proud of, even if they do not see the fruits of their labour immediately – the work and process was still critical.

For more information about Livity Africa please click here.

Pheladi graduated with an Honours degree in Journalism from Wits in 2014. She is passionate about trying to inform people, tell authentic South African stories and document history through her words and images.

She has worked as a print journalist and as an intern at an international wire agency since graduating. At Democracy Works she is providing social media support as a freelancer.

When she isn't behind a lens or furiously typing on a keyboard, she can be found reading, listening to music or watching documentaries.

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