A Place Called Freedom?

By Liepollo Pheko · 21 Jun 2010

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Picture credit: BBC World Service
Picture credit: BBC World Service

Reflecting on June 16th in the midst of the flag waving, lung busting, slightly mind-numbing festival that is the world Cup has become almost incidental. In years to come one wonders whether June 16th will be remembered more as the day that South Africa’s self respect on the soccer pitch was severely dented or as the day which commemorates our young martyrs in the struggle for freedom.

In fact, the state of our attention span is indicative of how we have reconstructed our collective struggle memory. It suggests a lack of interest in and concern for what this memory symbolises.

As such, it may come as little surprise that many young people in this country feel dislocated from and disinterested in politics, the state and its symbolism.  Young people are said to be “apathetic, ungrateful, born frees.” 

Having leapt out of the demographic called ‘youth’, I am old enough to comment without sounding defensive.  The idea of citizenship as being something that excites, unites, inspires and identifies a group of people as a nation bears examination. It is too easy to dismiss young people and draw unfavourable comparisons to the young martyrs of 1976.

An easy starting point is what citizenship offers youth today in this country. Our youth are speaking volumes by declining to vote, both in national and local elections. A 20-year old niece of mine said that she felt taken for granted by politicians and coerced into voting. Her 18-year old brother concurred, saying that he felt excluded from conversations and marginalised by adults, except during elections.  “They talk at us,” he said.

At a time when the education system is in many respects as appalling as it was 34 years ago, the elders are not engaging young people -- and we must consider whether we have constructed the kind of nation and identity, which is compelling to young people.

Political power has so far failed to yield the fruits of Social transformation. In this country, race and class are almost inseparable and Africans are still the lowest earners with the least disposable income. African youth in particular face incomplete high school education, low university enrolment, high university dropout rates, unemployment and the continuing cycle of intergenerational poverty.

And, while the South African government has conceptualised a plethora of policy interventions and related agencies to create work, impart skills and absorb people into the economy. None have so far shown effective signs of enhancing young people’s citizenship and are seen by some as expensive shows of lip service to quell citizen’s dissatisfaction and silence or avert critics.

As a result, youth unemployment stands higher than the 40% national average. Up to 59% of the unemployed have never worked and most of these are youth. 

One of the most crucial rights of passage of any human being is the right to work and take up one’s place as an economically and socially productive adult. A whole generation of youth in South Africa is denied this right.

The skewed nature of the post apartheid education system reproduces skewed social consequences across racial lines. Township schools, rural schools and suburban schools are almost as much conceptual ideas related to entitlement and state obligation as they are demographic realities.

These silos allow the state to retreat into empty rhetoric and celebrate abject suffering and absolute inhumanity calling it “courageous and spirited.” It is a travesty that any teacher must nurture 100 young minds in one classroom with scant support. It is absolutely heart breaking to imagine that thousands of children walk up to eight hours a day to get to and from school in the midst of bitter winter and traverse the dangers of rape and abduction en route.

The objectification of the African child as being devoid of humanity, incapable of feeling pain and perhaps, as a result, undeserving of love and equitable resource allocation, is perhaps why my nephew opines that adults only consider him as a potential voter.

Thus, the objectification of young people at large arguably makes it extremely difficult for them to construct their own identity and also means that the rigid confines of caricature and political opportunism remove them from agency and self-definition -- everything that the class of 1976 demanded.

How have we managed to rescind the hard fought intent of self-determined social conscience by allowing a narcissistic, patriarchal and revisionist State to ransom our collective memory and marginalise us from that self-determination in less than a lifetime?

Where June 16th symbolised the politics of hope and audacity in pursuit of liberating choices, today’s political and social milieu presents young people with ‘black diamonds’,  ‘tendepreneurship’ and bling as the aspiration.

Young people themselves are not entirely innocent bystanders in this story, nor are they a homogenous lump. They have choices to make and a future to create. But, globally, the state and its various components appear unconcerned that young people are disconnected from these crucial processes and choices.

Related to the South African experience, in Sierra Leone and Ghana the depoliticising of youth is also noted, as in many other parts of the world. In the reconstructed Liberia, young people have expressed the sentiment that they were useful only during elections but that patriarchal constructs now demand that they leave the room and leave the elders to get on with the business of running the country. In Kenya, the appointment of assistant ministers under forty is viewed by critics as cheap tokenism and an attempt to neutralise the most progressive players in radical politics.  Across Europe, even in well off countries such as Sweden, Germany and the UK, the politics of the state creates the same dislocation, which is growing.

What sort of critical mass and political footprints do these create for current and future generations?

Most political parties have a ‘youth wing’, which ought to be a dynamic space for nurturing a new vision for nationhood, politics and change. This ought to be the best expression of a citizenship and nationhood, which speaks to our heartfelt aspirations and addresses our most profound values. 

In the US, only Obama-mania brought into political participation a generation who had been marginalised when the national agenda was staked on the War on Terror.

Further back in history, in June 1989 young people led the Tiananmen Square revolt and similar to the South African youths of 1976 demanded to define their own sense of sovereignty and self-mastery by demanding an end to censorship and draconian laws.

Twenty years later on the anniversary of that moment, students at Peking University struggled to recall or identify the events, which had been launched from their very campus and expressed more interest in the stock exchange than politics.

So perhaps the construction of a co-dependant relationship between the state and its citizens is the praxis for nationhood, which is exciting and authentic. To find “a place called freedom” requires more than talk shops and entirely state-led platforms for change. It is a nation where young people and other groups find a reflection of huge possibilities and imaginative governance. This moves us away from objectifying young people to engaging them. It moves youth from entitlement and disinterest to active and energetic participation in creating a banner under which they stand counted and accountable.

Perhaps the late Amilcar Cabral, Guinea Bissau’s agronomist and Marxist politician expresses most clearly the demands that young people have of politicians in promoting a meaningful form of citizenship:

“Demand from responsible Party members that they dedicate themselves seriously to study, that they interest themselves in the things and problems of our daily life and struggle in their fundamental and essential aspect, and not simply in their appearance…Learn from life, learn from our people; learn from books, learn from the experience of others. Never stop learning…Nothing of this is incompatible with the joy of living, or with love for life and its amusements, or with confidence in the future and in our work…”

Liepollo Lebohang Pheko is Executive Director at NGO/think-tank, the Trade Collective and is Africa co-convener of the World Dignity Forum.

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4908195624085 Verified user
30 Jun

A Place Called Freedom

We have to deal with our dysfunctional education system to be able to address the plight of our youth. Great line of reasoning Liepollo.

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Rory Short
30 Jun

Meaning-filled Existence

As I see it, the chief role of government is to work to create a context in which citizens are enabled to reach their maximum creative expression.

Most governments including our own are not very interested in doing this. Sadly, many of those involved in politics are more interested in self-service than public-service. That this is the case is the fault of the citizens of the country in that they do not expect and demand of government that it plays the role I spoke of in my opening sentence.

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