Youth voices are missing in our media

2016-10-30 12:34

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In 2008, when he was still the leader of the ANC Youth League, Julius Malema said he would “kill for Zuma” and Thuli Madonsela was not yet the Public Protector. Eight years ago, our democracy was protected by a chorus of civil society voices, including those of Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Zackie Achmat. And, above all, by the media. Mondli Makhanya, for example, was a rock-solid constitutionalist, sparing no adjectives to call a spade a spade.

But as the chapter 9 institutions have found their footing, and as the courts have hung tough (in spite of open attempts to “transform” them), the media’s role is up for review. Do journalists need to keep beating the drum about the rule of law and separation of powers? Especially after the recent municipal elections, which have transformed the political landscape.

Sampie Terreblanche pointed out in his book Lost in Transformation what so many citizens know instinctively. Johnny Miller has recently photographed the scenes of inequality from his drone. A picture is worth a thousand words. In the language of the French Revolution, democracy has two sides – freedom and equality. Freedom abounds, but commensurate equality is not there. Ask the Gini coefficient.

About 80% of blacks are still waiting for the fullness of democracy to arrive. Many young women have turned to prostitution not by choice, but due to an economic imperative. Unemployment is biting hard. Yes, 20% of blacks have risen out of poverty. So there are roughly 5 million blacks and 5 million whites living comfortably, leaving 42 million blacks and 1 million whites living in poor conditions – 43 million have-nots against 10 million haves.

The fault line is no longer race; it is age. More than half of our 53 million citizens are younger than 35 – an uncommon demography for any country. But it is reality. About 70% of the unemployed and about 80% of the have-nots are young.

Most of these youngsters cannot remember the struggle, and their view of the Constitution and the National Development Plan does not line up with the esteem that those older than 35 have for them – those who sacrificed so much to gain our freedom.

So just as we feel that we have contained triumphalism, and can hunker down on constitutionalism and play by the rules, young voices are saying that democracy is causing them to be excluded. To them, the Constitution legitimises the status quo – nationally and globally. This is reflected in the low voter turnout in the lower age brackets and in the Fallist movements. These are not politicised freedom fighters. They are poor, and they feel that without an education, they won’t ever succeed. And if they don’t succeed, their country won’t succeed either, so their confrontations and persistence can be read as loyal and legitimate.

The challenge comes when the use of force enters, on one side or the other. When the social contract in any setting breaks down, you have to choose between force and values to settle your differences. But there is a trust deficit because young people feel cheated, so shared values are hard to find at this stage. At my age, as an elder, I can’t imagine young women having to turn to prostitution to survive. Yet there is even talk now of decriminalising it. Hasn’t the democracy project failed when we have to abandon our cherished values or turn to brutality and labour-esque dispute methodologies to negotiate fees with students?

The media should not see its role any longer as the custodian of the rule of law and the separation of powers. That will look like it has taken sides. Neither can the media serve as a vanguard to blaze a new trail forward. But surely it can take on the role of development facilitation, for there is no such thing as spontaneous development. A catalyst is needed, a change agent.

The media does not need to devise platforms, there is no shortage of political parties to do that. Start by giving more space to young writers. Explain the case on both sides clearly. Make sure that those who can afford to buy a newspaper understand that many others can’t afford to.

In biblical language, we need to shift our focus from being a land ruled by kings, to being a land ruled by prophets. Beat the drum of order softer and beat the drum of equality harder. We need to listen closely to our youth as well as to our institutions. Equality will inevitably mean wealth distribution. The media’s new role is to optimise this shift – finding and reporting on case studies, innovations and nuances that will make democracy more inclusive. If equality is not safeguarded now, democracy may be lost – not to the kleptocrats this time, but into chaotic use of force and the deterioration of cherished values.

Stephens is executive director of the Desmond Tutu Centre for Leadership

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