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Political ‘apathy’ among South African youth

August 3, 2004

I was recently asked to comment on the ideas in my earlier piece, The Votacon Generation. I was asked to expand on ideas about perceived political apathy among young South Africans. The querent felt that by rejecting voting, young people were negating the benefits of the ‘free society’ their parents had fought for.

I believe that young people who didn’t bother to vote, or even bother to dissect the policies of the parties in much detail, have defaulted onto the best response. The media tells us lies about ourselves, the parties offer us nothing, in fact, society offers us nothing – so we see no

need to contribute or try to change society at the polls.

It takes a long time to develop a coherent and useful analysis of post-apartheid South Africa, and many people with PhDs have failed to do it convincingly. Without having gone through the effort of analysing policy, I think most young people feel disconnected. It’s an intuitive political analysis which I think is more ‘correct’ than a lot of the waffle peddled by experts.

What does a free society stand for? The right to get shot dead by council security guards while trying to stop them beating up your mother? This happened to Marcel King Marcel King in Durban recently during a dispute in which the council cut off a community’s electricity for non-payment. The Rachel Corrie of South Africa’s struggle against neoliberalism?

An extreme example, but young people are disempowered and confronted with structural violence every day, from appalling schools to restrictive families and so on out into society.

I would guess that young people are also both victims and perpetrators of most crime. Our cities are not safe, especially for children, and rates of rape and domestic violence are very high. Many young men turn to crime because of the lack of work, combined with macho survivalist cultures, some of which probably stems from the struggle against apartheid.

I think most youth would find that ‘freedom’ is illusive, and only available to the well-off or connected. Most young people have no access to quality education, decent jobs, or the rights that the Constitution guarantees them. Police regularly violate these rights, and since young people don’t have the resources to hire lawyers, not much is done about it.

What do elections stand for? The right to vote for that strange mix of market fundamentalism and Stalinism that is the ANC? Or the old right wingers in new garb? The freedoms of an open society are in no way a product of elections. They are a product of people’s struggle, and in South Africa of people’s struggle against apartheid. Voting is deferring responsibility to maintain those freedoms to a representative you trust. In 1994, all the activists went home and said ‘our job is done now, the ANC is in power’ – which is precisely why we are still in such a bad way 10 years after the birth of democracy.

Government at best are bumbling idiots. The fact that people have faith in them is what keeps us from developing our own autonomous, accountable and representative institutions.

The alternative is to rebuild autonomous networks, which my comrade .brush has called ‘ecologies of struggle’. This means organisations or collectives of various kinds, involved in everything – from resisting evictions to planting permaculture food gardens to supporting young artists – networking loosely in friendship and solidarity, not through an overarching analysis or ideology, but a common commitment to human values like what is called in South Africa ‘ubuntu’ (menschlichkeit – ‘humanity’ is the best English translation, but it doesn’t do it justice).

Are young people just dissafected, or are they rejecting neo-liberalism?

I think that activists with connections to international struggle or to the academy would frame the resistance as being anti-neoliberal. Whether young people would agree is another story – neoliberalism probably seems quite abstract, the resistance is to the nameless faceless machine affecting their material conditions. But it is probably fair (if simplistic) to say that most resistance is to neoliberalism, as it is usually over access to basic rights to water, electricity and housing that such struggle happens. (The South African government has followed a neoliberal programme of ‘cost recovery’ in these areas).

But a lot of young people have been involved with the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) protesting for treatment for HIV/AIDS – this has nothing to do with neoliberalism, just government’s inscrutable indifference to the lives of the many people with the virus.

Representations of youth in South African media

In terms of analysis, youth are pretty much a void in South African media. There is certainly not the condemnation of young activists that seems apparent in the US media. There has been some comment by miffed older people that ‘we fought for freedom, all young people want to do is drink and send text messages to each other. We need to educate them better’ – that was pretty much as far as analysis went.

No real critique of how, post-’94, the minds of young people were colonised by a consumerist message we hadn’t been exposed to before, and the inevitable effect that had. Young people are alienated from the struggle of their parent’s generation, because they see the results – fat cat politicians enriching themselves. Also, the narrative of the struggle (as taught at school etc.) has already become a nation-building/ founding fathers myth – something that happened in the past.

I think the media don’t really know what to make of young people, who to be honest are often not very articulate – graffitti in the apartheid era was mostly slogans, now its all tagging. The media know the youth are disengaged from mainstream politics, but are not sure what is going on with them.

Who are the youth?

This is contentious! In African tradition, at least in the South, youth is considered a longer period than generally in the West. I personally see youth from more of a Western perspective – probably because I am white – as being from about 15 – 25. But most Youth Leagues consider the cut off point to be closer to 30, and remember that even Mandela said the voting age should be lowered (I think to 14) before the 1994 election. So when writing about youth in SA, I consider it to be from when you are old enough to interact critically with the outside world (which is subjective, but I think maybe 14 is average), to around 30.

But despite being 30 (now), I still see myself as part of ‘youth culture’. I straddle the generations, being just old enough to be involved in the apartheid struggle, and to have narrowly avoided conscription to the apartheid military.

What are the 5 most pressing issues for South African youth today?

Unemployment – now at 40%?

Lack of access to education (These two are closely related – there is very little work for unskilled people, but very few opportunities for working class people to get skills)

HIV/AIDS – disproportionately affects youth, many of whom will die by the time they reach their mid-30s.

Violent crime – victims and perpetrators, leading to a disempowering vicious circle.

Lack of representivity

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