The paradox of South African youth

2011-02-28 00:00

AS young people in South Africa we cannot really claim to have fought for liberation, although we are the ones who stand to benefit the most. Others fought on our behalf because we didn’t really understand what was going on. Our parents, their parents and their parents before fought for freedom. They died so that we might lead lives of our own choosing and making. They did not count on us being lost.

But we don’t know who we are or where we are going. We are lost, like a plastic bag blowing in the wind. That generally happens when you follow overachievers. Our parents were overachievers for they defeated a system far bigger than themselves.

We want to thank them for what they did. For bleeding and dying. For bleeding and living. For bleeding and not giving up. We think we will thank them by acquiring material possessions to impress them, but more importantly, to impress our friends. They bleed again because it is as if we are saying to them, “Look at what freedom can buy. A BMW.” They shake their heads. We shake ours, because deep down we know how empty our exploits are. And so we make a noise. We shout. Our shouts have no substance. No wisdom.

Ladder to freedom

We become agitators for the sake of it — not because we are bringing new ideas, We agitate because we seek relevance. But we don’t realise that our relevance has no relevance.

What to do with all this freedom? Freedom has so many complex sides to it. The right to buy, the right not to buy. The right to spend, the right not to spend. The right to care for the poor, the right to live one’s life without giving a damn about the poor. The right to care only for oneself. These are the consequences and the pleasures of freedom that we enjoy today.

A week ago, I watched the HBO mini-series on the United States’s second president, John Adams. While he was stationed in France to seek assistance from the French to resist the British, a French noblewoman asked him if he had ever attended the opera.

Adams responded by saying he had no ear for music because: “My occupation allows me little time for the finer arts. No, I must study politics and war, you see, so that my sons will have the liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons must study navigation, commerce and agriculture, so that their children will have the right to study, poetry, painting and music.”

His son, John Quincy Adams, would become the sixth president of the U.S. He too had dedicated himself to service.

Judging from what John Adams said to the French woman, we are missing an important step. Our parents fought for freedom, and we must fight to build the country, to strengthen its democracy and to build a foundation upon which the nation will prosper. We must not just look out for our own individual prosperity, for we prosper more as individuals if we help the whole nation prosper.

What are we fighting for?

If the last generation fought for our freedom, what are we fighting for? What is the mission of this generation besides partying? (Something to which I am completely unopposed I might add). What is our North Star?

Since the grown-ups have not told us where they are taking the country, we might as well set our own course. What is the single, simple, palatable proposition? What is the bold, balls-to-the-wall motto that we shall adopt?

We grow up too slowly, but when eventually we do, we grow old too fast. We will wake up one day to realise suddenly that it is all up to us. We didn’t pay attention, now we must look after the country.

Enjoy our youth

We are young: we should rightfully enjoy our youth. There is a misconception that enjoying one’s youth involves sex, partying and drinking. If I don’t do these things then I am not really enjoying my youth, is the logic. Again, I am not opposed to parties, I go to several a week. All I am saying is we must not just live from one party to the next. Those who have lived the kind of lives that just involve hedonism often call these years, “My wasted youth”. If we want to make an impact, we can’t just focus on the shallow and narrow factors that just speak to the individual. There are many young people who contributed tremendously while they were still young.

The third president of the U.S., Thomas Jefferson, was just 33 when he wrote one of that nation’s most important documents, the Declaration of Independence.

At 26 years old, Martin Luther King Junior organised a non-violent bus boycott after Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat in a segregated bus. At the end of the 381 days, the economy of the town had broken down so badly that the locals called for negotiations, and the supreme court declared that segregated buses were unconstitutional. Overnight, King became the national leader of the civil rights movement. At 28, King preached his famous sermon, “Loving your enemies”.

Serving humanity

His idea was radical because it was new. It was non-violent. It was also about love at the same time. It called to build, not to destroy. Yet he was a youth.

And of course, Steve Biko, who died at 31, left us with radical ideas that we still quote to this day: “I write what I like”.

How did these young people become so famous? They served humanity, not themselves. Studies show that people who serve causes that are higher than themselves are more satisfied and are happier. Those are, in fact, the ones who are enjoying their youth.

I am not here to preach. I am merely talking to myself. Publicly. I don’t have answers. I have the same questions that my generation is grappling with.

There is a terrible misconception that when you are young and want to be involved in the political process, you have to be angry, abandon all reason and display all the vices of youth to make an impact on the political landscape. These young men, Jefferson, King and Biko, all stood up and were counted. They showed that one is never too young to be wise.


The second part of this talk I will call The Power of Opportunity. Opportunity favours no one. It favours those who do something with it, whether it is for ill or good. What does the power of opportunity mean? It means that you are fearless when you are faced with it, for it presents itself always, under good circumstances, under bad. It’s just up to the individual to see it. It also means that when you see opportunity you don’t disqualify yourself because you are not ready. Always prepare yourself for opportunity. One of the things I often say to myself is, “I am not qualified to do anything, but I will not disqualify myself from doing anything.”

The problem with us is that we run away from our responsibility. We will inherit this country. Giving it up for others to run won’t serve us, or the country. We cannot run away.

Our generation has incredible talent. There are many powerful minds. We have more than enough capable individuals. But there is an underlying sense of entitlement with many who believe that opportunities should fall into their laps. They shouldn’t. The people we most admire are those who create opportunities where there are none. What will our generation be known for? Entitlement must come to an end because it puts no responsibility on you as an adult. If you can’t do a job and you know very well that you can’t learn it once you’re in it, don’t accept it. Just in case you think I am speaking out against affirmative action, I’m not. One still needs to be qualified to be an AA candidate.

Biting the hand

The attraction of the bling lifestyle has translated itself, not just into a state of apathy, but into a sense of not biting the hand that feeds me. That hand may harm the country in the future, but I’m being fed right now so I will not speak out. A message for us young people: stand up for what you believe in, not what will make you popular. If what you believe makes you popular, bonus.

But I will leave young people with this message. Just because you don’t know what you want to do with your life, doesn’t mean you’re not going to do anything with it.

I am an ad man. I make ads for a living, or at least used to. Now I make others make ads for me. I will end off by reciting my favourite commercial of all time.

“Here’s to the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the round pegs in the square holes, the ones who see things differently. They are not fond of rules, and they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. But the only thing you can’t do is ignore them, because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius, because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are those who do.”

Let’s go out there and be crazy and change this nation.

• I delivered this speech at the Daily Maverick’s The Gathering towards the end of last year. I have received numerous requests to publish the speech on as many platforms as possible. I resisted, until an uncle I respect asked me — actually he ordered me — to publish it here too. If you have seen it, apologies. — News

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