This was more-or-less what I presented at the 4th annual Beyers Naude Memorial Lecture at UFS on 27 July 2012
Thank you to the University of the Free State for humbling me with an invitation to be part of this incredibly important and prestigious lecture.
In the years since our young democracy reached majority age, 20.5 million young South Africans have not been able to fill the shoes of those who took on armies with rocks, policemen with photographs and injustice with a complete refusal to lie down and be rode over by the machinery of a fascist state. Today we need youth with the empathy to understand the immense challenges they face and the ability to act – not just recognise, not just understand – but to act to change them. Despite the sacrifices made by the young men and women whose shoulders we stand on, a 2009 paper for the Centre for Higher Education Transformation indicated that close to 42% of South Africans between the ages of 18 and 24 are not enrolled in educational institutions or employed. In 2010, Statistics South Africa reported that 49% of 15-34 year olds live in households with a per capita income below R555/month. These figures and jargon get tossed about from one policy document to a newspaper article to an academic paper and back to a national strategy document. The picture leaves the world with the impression of a violent, restless, hopeless generation trapped by the structural inequality that has replaced institutionalised inequality. Our state is failing our youth and our youth are failing the state.
Referring to the conditions within Khayelitsha in the Western Cape, Equal Education deputy secretary general, Doran Isaacs observes that “We twist and turn through what Edward Said called “magic thinking”, a style of reasoning that blurs the distinction between truth and fiction so as to make a man-made, deliberately constructed disaster seem like a necessary or at least an acceptable thing. It is the essence of magical thinking, he said, to make light of what is in fact heavy.”
My intention this afternoon is not to make light of these heavy matters as we all know well their magnitude and multitude. Instead, I wish only to recognise the role that my peers, the youth themselves, must play to push aside the magic thinking. This role will require the kind of empathy that breeds cohesion and the courage to act to achieve it: two sides of the same coin and two necessary qualities for fostering a generation capable of building the inclusive and equitable society we all hunger for.
Apartheid offered an opportunity for young people with these qualities to fight for something tangible, far-reaching and easy to understand. That context gave people who wanted to fight, something to fight for. In the absence of this obvious enemy, many of our youth have become apathetic, comfortable to complain or demand change but lacking the means or motivation necessary to do anything more than be indignant and despondent.
Over the last few years, broad-based political parties or youth wings of political parties have added their voices to these grumblings of dissatisfaction and anger from the youth but have similarly done little to nothing to address these challenges despite having the collective action power necessary to do so. Participation in these political youth movements has become a proxy for youth active citizenship but this participation is not a substitute for participation in civil society. The rhetoric of many of the representatives of these youth organisations has been that of entitlement and excuses. What jobs the youth are entitled to, what excuses corporate South Africa has invented for not creating them, whether Apartheid is a legitimate excuse for the continuation of many for the ills it has bred, what entitlements should be attached to the label of historically disadvantaged. This back and forth between the left and the right, Mangaung and Cape Town, has not furthered the more important post-partisan discourse that should be taking place. The central question of this debate should be: How can the youth collaborate, practically and sustainably, to collectively solve the challenges they face?
It is my belief that it is only through collective action that the youth can establish both the collaborative partnerships necessary for social cohesion as well as a nation with ethics. These partnerships the youth must establish need to be primarily with each other. With one voice, non-racial and classless, the youth can implement the changes they need to see in society. These collaborations need to focus on sustaining the individuals and organisations that establish them but also the projects that they pursue. They need to nurture empathy and foster action.
The young people of Tunisia and Egypt understood this as they flooded the streets of Tunis and Cairo to demand a future markedly different from their past. Despite facing the same generational exclusion from high-level macroeconomic and socio-political decision-making that South Africa’s youth face today, they refused to accept that there was no place or space or opportunity for them to make their voice heard.
Many non-profit and student-run organisations have realised this need to speak up, setting-up networks that pool talent, resources and institutional knowledge for mutual convenience and prosperity. The Funding Practice Alliance, also known as the FPA, is an organisation established on this premise. Made up of four organisations including Social Change Assistance Trust and the Rural Education Access Programme, the FPA aims to transform the relationship between civil society organisations and funding agencies and works with dozens of local development agencies within the Eastern, Western and Northern Cape.
Of course many of these kinds of partnerships will not be successful. Non-profits and small businesses share the same notoriety in South Africa: most are here one day, and gone the next. All things are not possible with hard work and motivation alone but certainly much more is possible with them than in their absence. Because there are young people who are capable of making it work, capable of both empathy and action. Their numbers extend well beyond the elite few whose faces grace magazines and newspaper top 200 lists. I know this because I have seen this, they come from rural Eastern Cape like my husband or the mountains of the Drakensburg like my varsity room mate or the northern suburbs of Johannesburg like my childhood best friends and they find each other.
At my alma mater, the University of Cape Town, many of them found me. The student-run organisation Ubunye was born as projects joined together to gain the critical mass they needed to get things done. I volunteered for Township Debating League, an organisation teaching critical thinking and debating to teenagers in predominantly black and coloured communities. A friend a few years ahead of me started Inkanyezi, a high school mentoring and leadership development project and my best friend was vice-president of TeachOut, a Maths, Science, Accounting and English tutoring project. These three projects formed Ubunye which now operates in 21 schools in Khayelitsha, Gugulethu, Phillipi and Samora Machel with a volunteer base of over 500 local and international students. None of these projects could have made it on their own: Only through their partnership have they managed to achieve their aims and shared vision. But none of us, the individuals that worked on these projects, could have made it on our own either. We needed the support and advice of a collective. When one learner we had worked with for three years got pregnant and turned down a scholarship to UCT on the poor advice of a boyfriend unconcerned about what future he was pushing her into, we wept together and cursed our seemingly futile, pointless work. But when one of our kids from Khayelitsha got into a BSc at UCT and made it through his first year, passing all his courses as many from private and public schools alike do not manage to do, we celebrated together too. On days like those, it felt like we were doing something important. Today, Ubuyne has achieved the stability and continuity it needed to develop and grow in the long term and it did this through relying on each other, not on the university and not on the state.
We cannot wait for a state intervention or a government organisation to develop the capacity necessary to attempt to build infrastructure or determine our futures and our prospects for us. Case in point: the textbook crisis that has left an entire year of learners without learning materials for 7 months of the school year. Weeks before final assessments and matric exams all the textbooks in Limpopo and the Eastern Cape have still not been delivered due to delays and errors in distribution that have drawn massive criticism but could not generate the same rage, mass-action or legal action that resulted from a painting of our president.
For this reason, we must build our own networks, use existing public spaces - schools, universities, community centres - where we interact on a day-to-day basis as sites of coordination and collaboration and organise in the manner most swift and cost-effective, just as the freedom fighters of our rich history did, Dr Beyers Naude included. They did not have money, cell phones, Twitter or any institutional backing behind them. They could not have asked for these things nor demanded them. Similarly, no one would give them their freedom: they had to fight for it. And despite what recent campaigns doing the rounds on YouTube and Facebook might suggest, having the technology we have today would have been unlikely to make anything easier for them. Social media is not a proxy for political will or social activism. It is simply a tool, like a whisper or a passed note, for igniting a generation where the spark has already gone off. Those who wish to remain ignorant and do nothing are still free to do so in this digital age but those who have the empathy to act, now have a faster, more efficient manner to find each other and organise.
As I speak to you today, there are numerous youth movements in South Africa that are utilising these tools to form the partnerships they need to succeed. Through its mobi site and MXit site, the reading agency FundZa Literacy Trust is fulfilling its mission of popularising reading among South African teens and young adults. Every night, thousands of teens in informal settlements and RDP housing stay up well past midnight reading the work of South Africa’s most acclaimed authors - serialised and adapted to fit an audience reading on the tiny screen on a feature phone. What FundZa is essentially doing is creating a mini-library, available on any cell phone anywhere at anytime, and a giving young writers and readers a digital platform to engage with new ideas, new possibilities and each other.
Read a Book South Africa is a movement that exists solely on Twitter. On this platform, thousands of black South Africans are supporting and challenging each other to break the stereotype that if you want to hide something from a black person, you put it in a book. It is not for book-lovers; it is for people who want to collaboratively find in books that which those who read and love them have. Within a month of its inception over 4000 people had joined the cause, now there are 7906 of them: followers are simply encouraged to read one a book a month, that’s all, nothing profound. Just act.
Following the recent scandal caused when the exorbitant salaries of key National Youth Development Agency figures were revealed by the media, the Stop the NYDA campaign started on Facebook and has attracted over a thousand supporters since it began two months ago. The campaign encourages young people to share stories about how the agency has disappointed them, stop the government from giving the NYDA any further funding but more than that, their most recent status urges that: “It’s not enough to say "I support the campaign" or to "like a status". It’s not enough to simply talk through your keyboard by commenting on Facebook and Twitter. We need young people to get involved in getting the work done. Get involved!” Whether the mass action and collaborative partnerships take place in a physical or digital space, it’s never enough to simply agree or simply empathise. We must also act.
"Each Generation must, out of relative obscurity, discover its mission, fulfil it or betray it" – Fanon’s words read like a prophecy but also as a challenge for a generation of young people chasing the ghost of social cohesion among a great number of competing and compounding issues. The struggle for this elusive cohesion began with the black faces peering from the ballot paper in 1994. It has continued in fits and starts for almost two decades and it is critical for it to continue for many decades to come.
Speaking at the Sunday Times Literary Awards in 2012, celebrated Kenyan author and academic, Ngugi wa Thiong’o explained that “The song that must be sung will be sung; and if banned, they will hum it; and if humming is banned, they will dance it; and if dancing is banned, they will sing it silently to themselves or to the ears of those near, waiting for the appropriate moment to explode.” Our moment is now. Let’s act. Let’s explode.