Abnormal normality

2012-07-07 10:07

After reading City Press’ three-part youth month series – Young, Jobless and Desperate – I was left saddened by the conditions in which South African youth find themselves.

We often fail to note what the statistics don’t tell us – the drudgery of every life that an individual has to contend with.

These difficulties take different shapes for different individuals. Also, the statistics don’t tell us about the creative coping and survival strategies that our young people employ to negotiate their life chances.

I have been doing research on young people over the past four years and would like to share some of my observations.

I am concerned that young South Africans have to resort to gambling to make a living. Gambling, when it’s done irresponsibly, can have devastating outcomes on individuals and those close to them.

The sad fact of life is that the scenes captured in the series are a daily occurrence in many of our townships. They are what we call “abnormal normality”. Orange Farm is one example.

Made famous by its violent protests on the ever-busy Golden Highway, this township is experiencing many problems.

While there is infrastructure development taking place in this township, it is juxtaposed by devastating levels of poverty, youth unemployment, HIV/Aids deaths and drug abuse, to name a few.

Young people shape their lives and their future based on developments in their social environment.

I want to focus on a category of youth – young men between the ages of 15 and 25, who exist at the margins of the Orange Farm community.

These are young people who collect scrap metal (traditionally an activity done by older men and women) to earn money to either feed their drug habits or to be able to get food each day.

They also sell drugs, wash rubbish bins and steal from the local residents any material they can exchange for cash at scrapyards.

Many of the young men in the above age group are high-school dropouts.

They are resorting to anti-social and illegal means to generate income.

To deal with the criminal behaviour of some of these young men, the residents resort to mob justice as they try to establish and reinforce social boundaries.

Also, while these young men grow up with social expectations that they will be providers at their respective homes, they have limited opportunities of securing employment.

While political and academic debates rage with technicalities on how to deal with youth problems (these debates are necessary), the very problems are conceptualised in ways that aid specific factions in their political pursuits, and the costs are rising in the process.

The young people walking the streets of Orange Farm and many other South African townships are searching for means to negotiate the harsh material realities of everyday life.

And unfortunately, some of their choices have devastating consequences for themselves and those around them.

One concedes the complexity of problems bedevilling our nation. Perhaps at a different time we can talk about how young people get into such desperate situations.

However, failing to deal with the problems faced by young people of all races, genders and classes with some sense of urgency, South Africa runs the risk of growing an underclass that is constituted by not only middle-aged, unemployed, uneducated, unskilled people, but by a significant number of young people growing into adulthood with little or no prospects of ever securing employment and whose potential has never been explored.

» Bingma lectures in the department of sociology at the University of Pretoria

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