Youth in a ‘teenage democracy’: reconsidering the role of young people in politics

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Young people’s relationship to politics – and particularly to democracy – continues to be the subject of much debate. Here, Sarah-Jane Cooper-Knock explores the role of youth in the ‘teenage democracy’ of South Africa. Sarah-Jane is a DPhil candidate in International Development at the University of Oxford, and the Assistant Editor of Democracy in Africa.

Leaders in Africa and beyond have increasingly fretted that disenfranchised young people pose an imminant threat to national security and political stability.  Writing in South Africa’s Sunday Times two weeks ago, one 26 year old urged politicians to steer clear of ’ticking time bomb’ metaphors which only served to reinforce young people’s own pessimism about their future.

That 26 year old was Tshekiso Molohlanyi. His article was part of a series written by young people in the national paper this month. This initiative was the brainchild of Activate! Leadership for Public Innovation, a programme working to redefine perceptions of young people in South Africa and support the work of young activists.

Janet Jobson, who works with the programme, claims that Activate! sees young people as a “mechanism to broader social transformation rather than as a threat to our democracy”. Therefore, it creates links between young activists operating in this hugely diverse, and often fractured, society. Such links are intended to encourage collaboration and spark innovative solutions to “entrenched challenges” at a local and national level. Interlinkages are also crucial because, as Molohlanyi argues, engaged young people need to realise they are involved in “something bigger than themselves”. With this in mind, Activate! aims to build a critical mass of 5,000 connections between young ‘activators’ over the next 5-7 years.

In the Sunday Times series, each ‘Activator’ uses their personal narrative to raise deeper questions about the country’s development and democracy. Above all, these articles demonstrate the fundamentally positive role that civic engagement can play in transforming young people’s identities and the worlds in which they live.

Molohlanyi, for example, claimed that the same craving “to belong” had driven him both to gang activity and, later, to civic engagement. Through his work withActivate! and NGOs like LoveLife, Molohlanyi claims to have found the sense of purpose and dignity he previously sought elsewhere. But, as the writers highlight, civic engagement is no panacea.

Young people, like their older counterparts, face many difficulties when trying to engage with the South African government. In her article on the ‘right to know and responsibility to find out’, Fezeka Gxwayibeni highlights the importance of informed, prolonged, civic engagement and political critique that moves beyond the poles of outrage and apathy.  However, she highlights the problems that she and her fellow Activators faced when trying to gather the information they needed to make such a goal possible. Those requesting data on their informal settlement experienced deep suspicion from Municipal Officials. Where data was obtained, it was often hopelessly outdated.

Moreover, Molohlanyi argues that even where civic engagement is successful it is no substitute for economic engagement. Having served time in prison, Molohlanyi was determined never to go back. Since his release he has battled to gain training and become employable but still finds himself “hustling” for the job that would make his future secure. 

Nonetheless, the young voices heard in these articles are optimistic. Moeti, for example, lives in the informal settlement of Rooigrond and explains how technology has changed her area’s ability to access support for local development and democratic engagement. Such connections are crucial, Jobson argues, because they “show that there is real and imminent possibility in life, which can create ripples of hope and change in very depressed communities”.

Ultimately, it is these young people’s ability to hold fast to hope and commit to civic engagement amidst the everyday realities of a fallible democracy and a fractured society that makes them a model for democratic citizenship in South Africa, not a menace to it.

To read Molohlanyi’s article, please click here.

To read Moeti’s article, please click here.

To read Gxwayibeni, please click here.

1 COMMENT

  1. being a teen in a democracy land make me think of nelson mandela because it is all thanks to him and other political fighters

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