From unequal education, record-high unemployment, poverty to inequality, South Africa’s youth face systemic challenges.

Youth development journalist Ayanda Sishi Wigzell says that there is limited coverage of young voices as well as positive stories about youth. 

“Of the stories they monitored on children in 2020, 50% of them were always negative. They were about crime, conflict, warfare and accidents. Children and young people are always reported in the instance where something negative has happened and almost never when there’s something positive,” she said, quoting a Media Monitoring Africa report.

A UN report on Africa’s growth potential highlights that Africa has the youngest population in the world, with 70% of sub-Saharan Africa under the age of 30 and if managed correctly, African nations can use their youthful populations to create a demographic dividend and boost economic development, recommends a recent World Bank blog article.

“Young people are contributing daily to the benefit of their communities and nations across Africa. From providing support to the elderly to advocating for justice and equality, young people have proven their centrality to building and sustaining healthy communities,” reads the article.

This year marks the 45th anniversary of the 16 June 1976 student uprising in Soweto when young people protested, challenging the unjust education policies of the time.

Youth Lab managing director Pearl Pillay said young people are stereotyped – especially around Youth Month. A common perception is that today’s youth are apathetic.

“We are bombarded with comparisons of our generation and of the 1976 generation, not only is this an unfair comparison but it doesn’t do much to take the conversation around the youth forward,” she said.

This invalidates and silences the narratives about the strides the youth is making to tackle issues to positively impact their communities against the many challenges they face, she added.

According to Statistics South Africa (StatsSA), youth in South Africa continue to be disadvantaged in the labour market with an unemployment rate higher than the national average. According to the Quarterly Labour Force Survey (QLFS) for the first quarter of 2022, the unemployment rate was 63,9%  for those aged 15- 34 years.

Author, gender activist and thought leader Candice Chirwa points out that young people don’t get enough recognition for their unyielding efforts to implement grassroots movements to drive social change in their communities.

“There needs to be initiatives that give opportunities for them to get recognised […] It’s really important that we equip young people with the necessary skills, resources, opportunities and platforms to amplify the work that they are doing in changing communities,” said Chirwa.

As youth social media usage climbs in Africa, social media is growing to become an income opportunity for the youth in 2022. This is according to a recent GWI social media trends report.

But the report points out that social media is providing a tremendous opportunity for young African content creators and their rapidly growing audiences to tell a different story about the African communities. This powerful celebration and re-imagining by Africa’s youth have seen it leveraging digital platforms to monetise content.

Leveraging their voices and the growing power of social media, young people in South Africa have stood at the forefront of the fight for social and civil justice. With hashtags such as #AmINext, #FeesMustfall, #RUReferencelist young people have propelled the crises of Africa’s injustices to the world stage.

“It’s incredibly important to amplify the voices of the youth today because we make up the majority of the population and should have a say in the politics of our country outside of Youth Month,” said Sashi Wigzell.

“It isn’t that young people should matter when we only speak about Youth month or the anniversary of June 16. There should be a yearly conversation that we are having because young people are the ones that bear the brunt of the decision-making processes where we do not belong,” she said.

The youth excluded from decision-making 

While the majority of South Africa’s population is under the age of 35, most of those who make political decisions are much older. An estimate by Statista suggests South Africa has a youth population of 20.6 million, making up 35.7 percent of the country’s total population of about 57.7 million people.

Pillay points out that young people have so much to offer and a damaging perception and media narrative is that young people are not engaged in the work of developing the country.

“A lot of the media narrative is around a youth cohort that is apathetic, entitled and wants everything to be handed to them and this dismisses the idea that young people are actually very engaged in changing the status quo. #FeesMustFall is a good example,” said Pillay.

“Youth month invites us to reflect on the past struggles of young people but we need to optimise this chance to make way for the future and the kind of struggles young people face today that requires young people to be in power,” Chirwa explained.

“Do we have a youthful government? Do we have young ward councillors? Young people need to be activated with the right form of resources and platforms to ensure they assume their change-making potential,” she said.

Sishi Wigzell believes young people need to continue organising themselves outside the system or conventional ways of historic liberation movements.

“Let’s be steady, we are on the right path. I don’t believe we are apathetic to the issues of this country, I believe we are organising in a way that exists outside of the current status quo or what has been accepted by most liberation movements or political organisations,” she said.  

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