While African youth across the continent are generally optimistic, according to research, those of South Africa do not share in this optimism. But the country’s future direction will be shaped by this same group. What can we do now to empower them positively? The alternative is too awful to contemplate, says Ivor Ichikowitz
The pandemic and its economic and social fall-out has been a test case for many countries – some have passed it admirably, some have crashed. South Africa has been among the latter, despite the example of Nelson Mandela, celebrated in July’s Mandela month.
Few could have comprehended the extent of the economic, societal and psychological ramifications of the Covid-19 pandemic when it reached the shores of our continent.
The devastation continues and will no doubt lead to a sombre and solemn reflection for South Africans during Mandela Month, from our homes and other places of lockdown.
In these moments of introspection, marking the passage of 102 years since the birth of our Rainbow Nation’s founder, particularly on the backdrop of current events, which I argue have besmirched our national reputation, we must ask ourselves the following questions:
Have we, South Africans, lived up to the principles that Madiba lived by all his life and have we lived up to the challenge that he set for us? Have we met his expectation?
Are we capable of continuing his mission of aspiring to a society based on the Constitution and Bill of Rights, characterised by tolerance in a non-racial and non-sexist democracy, where our diverse ethnicities, genders and creeds are unified into one nation?
In light of continued travel restrictions and social distancing, we may feel more divided than ever. We realise that we must now look inward for the growth we seek as a country. However, in doing so, we may not like what we find.
Societally, our differences have left us at a critical impasse. The fault-lines separating us have been widened by isolation, divisive populist politicians, continuing economic disparity and in some cases, the stigmatisation of certain groups – a dynamic which the UN has recognised as a pervasive societal issue when diseases are deemed foreign.
From further afield, across our continent, we have witnessed encouraging green shoots of optimism. Recent research which examined the hopes and aspirations of Africa’s youth across Sub-Saharan Africa, has revealed a strong sense of optimism.
There is a resiliency to carry on in the face of major challenges and security threats (including infectious diseases); a dissatisfaction with high levels of unemployment and bureaucratic corruption and for the majority, an embrace of democratic values of participation, tolerance and freedom. Indeed, findings which provide a strong rebuff to many Afro-pessimists.
South African youth not optimistic
However, South Africa’s young people stood out from the rest of the continent. But not for all the right reasons. South Africa’s youth are less optimistic than young people elsewhere in Africa, revealing rising concerns about the future of the country and weakening trust in the power of democracy, while unemployment and corruption are considered the top issues facing the nation.
We must recognise and reflect upon the fact that our young people’s faith in democracy is being tested like never before. This country’s first generation born into freedom, many growing up with high hopes in the power of the democratic process, have for years seen their priorities ignored and are thus disillusioned.
We do not need to look far to find reasons for our young people’s pessimism. South Africa today has one of the highest femicide rates anywhere in the world, with over 2,700 South African women and 1,000 children killed last year alone, according to police figures.
As many as 51% of South African women further report to have experienced violence at the hands of someone with whom they are in a relationship. President Ramaphosa accurately labelled South Africa one of “the most unsafe places in the world to be a woman”.
Corruption has been, for too long, the number one enemy, blighting the future that our young people are longing for. It is a pandemic as destructive as Covid-19. It is no surprise that South Africa’s youth are most concerned about corruption and the lack of jobs.
Despite the President’s best efforts, the pace of the fight against corruption is painfully slow and having little impact. Even during the desperate times of coronavirus, it is disturbing to hear of the disappearance of funds destined to help the vulnerable.
Separately, our country has done very little to speak out against or stop attacks on its foreign nationals, particularly African immigrants, who have been brutalised and even murdered on numerous occasions in South Africa. During the Covid-19 lockdown these communities were amongst the most vulnerable in our society.
Our entrepreneurial spirit needs an urgent reboot. The forecast for creating a start-up culture conducive to greater youth empowerment is painting a bleak picture. In 2019, South Africa was ranked as one of the most challenging ecosystems for success.
In a sample of participating economies on the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM) National Entrepreneurship Index, it ranked 49th out of 54 economies, ahead of only Croatia, Guatemala, Paraguay, Puerto Rico and Iran.
The task ahead is indeed very daunting and will require decisive leadership from all sectors of our society.
Lack of leadership crisis
During July, Mandela Month, we have experienced how Madiba’s legacy is still looming large across the continent. Social media was abuzz with young people wishing that ‘Tata’ was still alive to lead us during the crises that we are facing as a nation but also as a global community. Compounded by the numerous stressors of the Covid-19 pandemic, there’s no longer any denying that the world is facing crisis in lack of leadership.
We grapple daily with populist-born fissures within society’s fabric, including surging political, religious, racial and ethnic divides. In the fight against such hatred and division, Nelson Mandela’s struggle for freedom, non-racism, justice and equality are as relevant as ever.
While it is now more critical than ever that we must continue to cherish Mandela’s significant contribution to peace, fairness and reconciliation, we must choose to prioritise fostering a climate of true equality and greater tolerance.
We must press our leaders to do the same and tackle the real challenges that perpetuate hate across our country and continent, such as poverty and inequality, while pursuing cooperation rather than confrontation.
I have no doubt that with the right incentives, through greater education and inclusion, our country’s historic change-makers will continue to hold the torch they took up in 1976 Soweto, raise their voices in unity and recreate South Africa for the better.
We must not miss the opportunity to nourish the bright young minds of tomorrow and support them by focussing on the needs for their development.
When the dust settles and out of the ashes of pandemic, South Africa will find a viable future in our change-makers of tomorrow, many who believe in the values embodied by Nelson Mandela. Through them, we can and will create a more just, tolerant and equitable society.
In South Africa’s youth, we stand a real chance of making the dream of the African Century a reality, and shaping a better tomorrow.
As Mandela once said, “Sometimes it falls upon a generation to be great. You can be that great generation. Let your greatness blossom.”