38 years later, South African youth face a new struggle

16 Jun 14
South Africa


Frank Harle is Restless Development’s Country Director in South Africa, based in Eastern Cape province. Mark Nowottny is Restless Development’s new Policy and Practice Director, and previously lived and worked in Johannesburg. You can find out more about Restless Development’s work in South Africa here.

Today, like every year in South Africa, we celebrate Youth Day. We commemorate the sacrifice made by so many young people in bringing about change during the 1976 Soweto Riots. It was a pivotal, watershed moment of the anti-apartheid struggle, and the image of Hector Pieterson dying in the arms of a fellow student will remain etched in our minds. But in May, for the first time, the “born free” generation of post-1994 South Africa had the chance to vote to elect a new government. While there’s no shortage on Youth Day of celebration of the historic role of youth in challenging apartheid, the occasion demands we also ask questions about the struggle that young South Africans face in 2014.

May’s elections, on the surface, brought little change. 40.66% of eligible voters (compared with 40.71% in 2009) stayed away. 36.39% (compared with 38.55% in 2009) of those eligible voted ANC. They returned an ANC government that claims continued, broad, support and that is expected to follow a broadly similar agenda. But at the same time, another story unfolded. Of those who chose not to register or not to vote, too many were young people. Data from the Independent Electoral Commission released before the election suggested that 60% of citizens in their 20s were registered to vote, compared with 90% in their 30s. More worryingly, “born frees” made up just 2.5% of the 25 million registered voters.

SRH workshops in the Eastern Cape

In Eastern Cape, where Restless Development works, young people face acute challenges. Livelihoods are top of the list. The official unemployment rate, up last quarter, stands at 25.2%, and not enough of these jobs can be considered decent work. But unemployment also disproportionately affects the young and the rural – exactly the people we work with in Eastern Cape. To address the national crisis, the government has prioritised for a number of years the twin pillars of education and job creation. But too many young people say that they’re still to feel the effects of new initiatives and policies.

Sexual and reproductive health (SRH), too, is an acute issue here in the Eastern Cape - far less visible than job creation, but at least as important for affecting a young person’s life chances. Late last year, we worked with the United Nations Population Fund and the Department of Health to hold workshops for young people on sexual and reproductive health in OR Tambo, Alfred Nzo and Amathole, three priority districts in the Eastern Cape. What young people told us is that they face multiple barriers in all spheres to living fully healthy sexual and reproductive lives. At school, pregnant girls are often shunned by education professionals and left to fend for themselves. When they try to access basic health services, young people tend to find clinics unfriendly, unapproachable and judgmental. Even at home, they find discussion closed about SRH, and no information from their parents. And it’s blame, judgment and ostracism – rather than support - that follow when girls fall pregnant, drop out of school, suffer abuse, or become HIV positive. Nothing could be more disempowering or limit a young person’s chances of success.

SRH workshop

How can we address these systemic challenges? Well, we’re convinced that empowering young people as leaders and partners – not just as beneficiaries of development – is absolutely key. Through our innovative model of youth-led development, we embed volunteer peer educators in communities through Youth Development Centres. They deliver skills training, information about SRH, and lead interactive teaching and community engagement. Our Youth Empowerment Programme mobilises and trains young people to engage youth to decrease the risk of HIV infection and STI transmission, reduce teen pregnancy levels and improve livelihood opportunities. And all the evidence – including our independent evaluations – tells us that putting young people in the driving seat works.

So in Eastern Cape, some young people are taking development into their own hands. It works, and there’s no doubt that we need this to happen more across South Africa. But they can’t do it alone. Based on the experience of young people in the districts where we work, here are some practical things that government should consider:-

• Back up the strong legislative framework by investing in awareness and education programmes on children’s rights and Ukuthwala (forced marriage)
• Involve young people directly in the development, provision and evaluation of youth friendly health services
• Provide services to combat gender based violence – in rural areas, this means not only more street lights and visible police presence, but also more meaningful engagement with young people to tackle deep-rooted norms and beliefs
• Invest in new approaches to SRH programme delivery, including those that give young people space to critically reflect and develop self-esteem and key life skills

But Eastern Cape is just part of the bigger picture. Young people around South Africa today are asking how the new ANC government can deliver a social contract that works for them. In 1976, young South Africans dreamed of civil and political freedoms. Today, they talk of economic and social freedoms. Last May, they elected a new government to help them achieve just this. Let’s hope that Youth Day 2014 marks the beginning of a new chapter in the struggle of South African youth.