The youth of South Africa – more than half of the population: Lost, misled or inspired? Everybody who attended the latest “Living Reconciliation Forum” on 24 August 2011 at the UCT campus would agree with the third option: The voices of the young people present at this  panel discussion next to human rights champions like Archbishop Tutu, Sipho Pityana, Ferial Haffajee and Bernard Lategan had a new quality beyond “struggle” rhetoric. They created new visions of a non-racial, more equal and caring South African society – much beyond the populist strategy of a “Juju” Malema. We should take a moment to listen more carefully to what they said and how young members of the audience received it – just not to ignore the huge potential behind it.

It is more than fourteen years ago that I spent my first morning in South Africa in Athlone when Archbishop Tutu was opening the Youth hearings of the TRC in May 1997. After having been denied access to the country during Apartheid years, I will never forget this first intense encounter with South African youth: In a packed community hall, hundreds of learners listened with their teachers to the statements of courage and woundedness by the young witnesses. It was something new then – the tangible hope that finally the marginalized and discriminated ones were respected and that things will change radically and forever.

In 2001 I moved with my partner from Amsterdam to Cape Town and became founding co-director of HOKISA, an organisation supporting children and youth living with HIV/Aids, mainly in Masiphumelele. In 2006 I was elected in the same position for a residents’ housing organisation after one of the worst shack fires in this community.

Almost one and a half decades have passed since this TRC Youth Hearing in Athlone: The hope has not only faded, but made space for despair and  anger – the most fertile ground for populism. Populism is addressing exactly these fears, but without allowing proper analysis and inclusive solutions. The education system – as one of the most important  foundations for any change and job creation – has failed a few generations since then. SADTU is dictating the MEC’s for Education what happens in schools.

Then there were leaders who didn’t need populism, but lead by example like Madiba and the Arch. Now there is deafening silence by government ministers to the call to trade in their luxury cars and share. And there is an outcry of protest against the call for a wealth tax by too many instead of looking into the matter with the needed compassion and wisdom.

And it is exactly here where the four young people came in at the panel discussion on 24 August under the motto: “A moral imperative to speak: What does civic responsibility mean in our troubled times?”

While “Juju” continues to play the role of the “young lion” speaking “truth to power” with remarkable success among many of those young people who have good reasons not to trust the old guard anymore, Amanda Ngwenya, a student at UCT, pointed out that making her fellow white students feel guilty would not help her, but they should instead   develop together a new concept of being human: Not Black, not White, not Coloured or Indian, but as a Human Individual, respected as such. While being fully aware, that being an individual is branded by many as being egoistic or even capitalistic she made clear that only strong individuals will be able to speak out and to make a difference.

Rayne Moses pointed out that we have forgotten too much about spiritual development of ourselves – to reflect and meditate can be a strong weapon against following blindly certain “leaders”. Jan Greyling from Stellenbosch won many hearts by starting his statement in fluent Xhosa and Zulu and as the Arch said: “It does not always require money to show – we care!” Jan confirmed as his biggest concern the bad state of education and unemployment among youth. 

Nonceda Bulani, a young community organizer from Khayelitsha, integrated the views of those who have never had a chance to go to university and who, after 17 years of freedom, still go to bed hungry: “We don’t need to by taught how to write a business plan, but to speak out in our language and based on our experiences. When Juju says he is poor, I can only laugh.” When asked why people still vote for the same government where too many enrich themselves, she responded: “Agh, then we think of Madiba… and as long as he lives, we can’t disappoint him.”

It is not enough space here to repeat the excellent statements of the “older” speakers and the guidance provided by the chair, UCT Professor Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela. But three points should be taken forward from this important evening, prepared so well by the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation:

* About the youth of South Africa: There are new voices and they need to be heard. They do not only appeal to a mostly academic young audience, but also to youth from marginalized backgrounds. When I asked our teenagers at the HOKISA Children’s Home in Masiphumelele to join us, I was worried that some might switch off during an academic conversation. The opposite was true: All of them listened most attentively, trying by all means to get the meaning of each statement, helping and confirming  each other to follow the discussion. Nondoda (17) photographed with his cellphone all panellists and noted their names. Thwali (17) smiled at the setting of the hall: “Looks like we are parliamentarians ourselves here.” Xolelwa (16) remarked on the way home that Amanda Ngwenya became her new role model. There is such a hunger beyond the fast food of populism among our youth !

* About a caring society: The Arch did the right thing by reminding us that there is enough wealth in this country (different to quite a few other African countries) – it is just a matter of caring and sharing. Those who jumped on the term of Wealth Tax should help to develop its concept further: It is right – and confirmed by the Arch – that government needs to come forward with gestures themselves. But: Who can argue against a non-racial wealth tax with the option to be earmarked for example for education, health or housing (supervised by independent auditors)? Nobody should be afraid that rich companies will consequently leave. They won’t – as stable conditions are more important than more and more strikes and  riots about service delivery ! But they need to be kindly and (if needed firmly) pushed, as most of them sadly do not go much further than tokenism or pretence at various charity events. Out of the R 20 million we raised for our housing project in Masiphumelele, more than 90 % came from private funders overseas and less than 10 % from South African donors. That should and can change, as already several overseas donors got tired of pumping into a generally rich country.

* About needed structures, not only goodwill:  Actually, we don’t need charity, we need structures which clearly encourage (and if necessary,  yes, demand) to overcome the obscene disparity between rich and poor in this country. South Africa is one of the worst in the world for this respect! Being rich comes with certain obligations, as, for example, is written in the German constitution without making wealthy people fleeing the country. Ferial Haffajee remarked so correctly in her closing statement that it is great to go home with good feelings and a new hope after such an evening, but we finally need to learn from our mistakes of a too light-hearted  optimism after 1994. Hope is not enough. We need to develop legal structures in our society which demand sharing and caring… not as a feel-good activity, but as a condition to overcome our troubled times. The present time bomb will not tick forever without exploding.

 * * * * *

Lutz van Dijk, PhD,  co-director of the HOKISA Children’s Home in Masiphumelele (www.hokisa.co.za ), author of “A History of Africa” and “Themba” (made into a movie in 2010