Building social capital in young South Africans

Helga Jansen-Daugbjerg
Helga Jansen-Daugbjerg

Despite South Africa’s burgeoning unemployment figures and dire predictions of a future of unskilled and unemployable youth, young people have created hope in the unlikeliest of places, creating solutions in their communities and creating work for themselves and their peers outside of government aid or intervention.

Young South Africans are often framed as abstractions of the fears and scars of a society and an economy at odds with itself and its history.

Government reports, socioeconomic research and thousands of NGO strategies codify the lives of young people into neat, reportable, evidence-based proof of concepts and policies that work, or don’t.

Race, age, rural or urban location, income and gender are descriptive indicator codes for the descendant refugees of structural inequality and apartheid.

It is therefore often easy to become blasé, and clichéd about the potential of young people to be the hope, or inherit a hopeless future.

There is an in-between area where young people are navigating strategies which extend beyond the immediacy of their own needs to the needs of their communities.

The Activate! network is based on the frame of social networks and their effect on communities, is premised on social capital, and aims to be a historical departure from expressions of social capital in which poverty-stricken communities supported each other through economic and social vulnerabilities. 

As catalysts for change, young people must go beyond their passive presence – simply providing training and opportunities for young people is not an indicator of effectiveness on communities.

The Activate! network sees young people (activators) supporting each other to deliver social, economic and political impact.

Evidence from the recent Activate! Change Drivers study, Exploring the Impact of a Social Youth Network in South Africa, conducted in 2019, is a long-lens view which supports a narrative of young people creating hope where it had almost been lost.

The study used social network theory to confirm what our change drivers’ training methodology has been alluding to: activators are effecting change within their communities to varying degrees by providing key services in poorly resourced areas.

Consensus in academic literature suggests that young people hold the capability to be agents of change.

As catalysts for change, young people must go beyond their passive presence – simply providing training and opportunities for young people is not an indicator of effectiveness on communities.

Impact on and effectiveness in communities are a stronger gauge of young people as change agents.

The social, economic and political impact of the study contributes to evidencing the value of a network underpinned by opportunity, connection and identity.

Strengthening these elements can strengthen the sustainability and social capital between network members.

However, social capital is dependent on the structural equivalence of network actors: do they share similar social positions, individual traits or socioeconomic profiles.

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The structural equivalence of activators is measured by the passion young people have for their communities, and the sense of purpose which solidifies them as community leaders.

Our study reveals that the majority of our activators provide social services, particularly in the areas of secondary education support, after-school coaching and career guidance.

A Gauteng-based activator runs a substance abuse prevention programme in partnership with Tshwane municipality.

One of his beneficiaries has been successfully rehabilitated and now employs 30 young people in a construction business.

An activator based in Ndunda in Mbombela, Mpumalanga, has shared a strategy with four other activators in starting a career guidance programme.

These programmes are run consultatively and in collaboration with local community initiatives and are an example of leveraging social capital and intergenerational partnerships.

Stories of young people taking the lead to effect social change are not just feel-good: they are the stories of hope against hopelessness.

To those whose lives and futures are in South Africa, and indeed on this continent, society owes an opportunity that is grounded in social and economic policies that work.

We can paper over the cracks in our youth population with all the policy papers, strategy documents and growth plans found in all government departments, public-private partnerships, donor-funded programmes and civil society campaigns.

If, however, these dreamscapes are not expressed in the reality of young people and in a social system which starts to break cycles of inequality, the youth will have nothing to inherit.

Our evidence shows that young people can lead the charge to break cycles of inequality and poverty – if we will let them.

Jansen-Daugbjerg is national programmes manager at Activate! Change Drivers

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