Beating old drums

2010-06-22 00:00

OBSERVING how this country formally celebrates Youth Day and simultaneously commemorates the tragedy and heroism of June 16, 1976, one cannot help but think those leading the celebrations are trying hard to do it the old way. And this is not only wrong, but ineffective.

The day is celebrated mainly through a political rally. Besides the state president, none of the speakers really convey a discernable message to the youth or on behalf of young South Africans. Unlike the youth activism of the forties which gave birth to the Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu and Yusuf Dadoo generation of leaders, youth celebrations do not leave a sense that a desired nation is being born. There is no evidence of a grandiose vision for this country or, at least, a good grasp of its strategic challenges. It is all mundane politics of personalities and little substance.

Youth leaders tend to do nice political talk. From what one hears from phone-in radio programmes after Youth Day festivities and big meetings, young people confronted with many socio- economic challenges are not impressed or inspired.

Youth Day is an opportunity to galvanise and harness the energy of the youth to improve their situations, improve their chances to realise a better life and help to instil a sense of agency on their part. This is an important part of building a better nation.

It is a platform for youth formations to provide leadership by suggesting concrete ways in which various youth organisations could collectively drive youth development. It is an opportunity for youth leaders to inspire young people who bear the brunt of our economic failures and social decay. This leadership responsibility is historical, but it has got to change with the times. During the struggle, youth activities were used to lift spirits and to mobilise the youth against apartheid. Peter Mokaba distinguished himself in this face of youth struggle. He led in song and slogan and fiery political speeches. He got the youth fighting for political freedom.

Julius Malema’s generation makes the mistake of trying to replicate Mokaba in song, slogan and speech. As a result, they sound irrelevant and devoid of ideas. They seem to speak past most youth.

Alternative parties do no better. Actually, very little seems to have come from political formations other than those linked to the ANC. Last week, the Democratic Alliance youth members had an uninspiring big meeting in their base in the Western Cape which they used for politicking. The Congress of the People youth have been so absorbed in internal shenanigans that they probably realised it was Youth Day when it was too late to organise something. The Inkatha Freedom Party youth organisation is under surveillance for expressing its wish for internal renewal and seems to lack the energy to do something positive publicly.

All of them, including the ANC Youth League, show a lack of creativity and inventiveness. If Mokaba had come back from the dead last Wednesday, he would have seen and heard very little that was unusual, except new faces and new versions of old songs — a lot more continuity than creativity. I am certain that even the 1976 youth will find very little inspiration in how their heroism is celebrated post-struggle. It is all slogans and historical speeches.

Most worrying for me is that while even adult political parties have been making efforts to connect with the youth of the 2000s, the bigger youth formations have not. For instance, the last elections saw ayoba (trendy) electoral campaigns by mainly the ANC, where it used a combination of concerts, braais, street parties, working dinners, social networking sites on the Internet, and dance and song, all to convey its key messages. This worked wonders for a party that faced a serious challenge from Cope and the DA. But youth formations take us back to the one-route politics of big rallies in open stadia during the country’s coldest winter in recent years.

I am surprised that the youth formations have not realised that no amount of replicating the past expands their appeal. The big youth turnout in the last elections has not helped youth organisations to realise that beating the old drums does not help. The new youth is diverse and requires innovative methods to galvanise.

There is an urgent need for a rethink about how youth leaders lead the new youth and help create a better nation out of them. Youth leaders must have personalities that send the right message. They must be conspicuous for valuing education, spurning crass materialism, commitment to entrepreneurship and a strong work ethic, and for having a big vision for South Africa just like the Mandela generation of the forties.

But this requires a politically mature and intellectually able leadership. One that is bold enough to create spaces for emerging youth trends to express themselves. It must be able to read that politics in its broadest sense is about findings ways in which human wellbeing can be achieved. Will those who hold positions of power in youth groups begin a paradigm shift to avoid running these organisations into oblivion? Will they show maturity and leadership or will they defend the old ways out of lack of maturity? There is very little sign of this maturity in the current youth leadership who are given to hurling insults rather than offering solutions to the big problems facing this country’s youth.

• Siphamandla Zondi is the executive director of the Institute for Global Dialogue, but writes in his personal capacity.

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