Trying to be good in ikasi

2008-05-16 00:00

WHETHER they are seen as “mommy’s babies” or “skollies”, township youth show a strong sense of right and wrong, and most consider themselves to be “good”, even if their actions don’t always reflect such ideals.

Recent research on the morality of township youth by the Human Research Council’s Dr Sharlene Swartz suggests that panicky calls for “moral regeneration” in South Africa are likely to have little impact on a generation of poor and neglected township youth who already regard themselves as “good”, and who see “being good” as one of the best ways to escape poverty and uplift their families.

Township youth have a “remarkable moral capital, which has been ignored by the official quest for ‘moral regeneration’ … Most [youths] are good, although neglected, and live non-reflective lives,” says Swartz. Despite the horrors of township life, Swartz found it to be a “place of sacrifice and love, where young people demonstrate tenacity and courage in trying to reform their behaviour”.

In the course of her research, Swartz met a young man who said he first had sex at the age of six, explaining it with the comment: “That’s the life in ikasi”. Another told her that he was “changing jobs”, moving from housebreaking to car hijacking since the money was better.

Keen to understand the link between poverty and young people’s moral decision-making, Swartz followed for a year the lives of 37 men and women between the ages of 14 and 20 living in Langa outside Cape Town.

Swartz said the youth responded enthusiastically to a caring adult ear. “In the light of the numerous mental health and emotional problems that result from living in a chronic and pervasive context of poverty, young people … in this environment lack the physical, mental and emotional resources to act on what they believe to be the good and to which they aspire,” says Swartz.

Using the language and perceptions of her subjects, Swartz was able to sketch four fluid moral categories at work in the township, ranging from “mommy’s babies”, through to “right ones”, “kasi boys and girls” to “skollies” (see box).

She found that the youngsters across the spectrum hold themselves responsible for their moral behaviour, seldom blaming their external environment — poverty, apartheid and pervasive immoral practices.

All participants spoke highly of their mothers, opening the door, says Swartz, to moral educational programmes, which tap into these women’s contribution to the moral formation of their children.

Swartz found that sexual activity plays a limited role in moral categorisation. For example, in the eyes of her peers, a “mommy’s girl” did not move to the “right” category simply as a result of falling pregnant. “Right” youth may or may not be sexually active; it is the extent of sexual activity and the degree to which the activities are public knowledge that might tip a “right” into the next category: kasi youth.

“One could have sex for drinks, favours or clothes and be considered a kasi girl, but young women who ‘slept’ with taxi drivers and for money were ‘skollies’,” writes Swartz.

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