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This article is taken from the August 2001 Phatlalatsa newsletter


Marginalisation re-created? Youth in South Africa 1990 – 2000 and beyond

S&T Senior Partner David Everatt was invited to the Centre of African Studies at the University of Edinburgh to present a paper on youth in South Africa. His paper will appear over the next three editions of Phatlalatsa.


In the last two years of the millennium, South Africa held its second round of democratic national and local government elections, for which less than half of 18 to 20 year-olds registered as voters. Exit polls suggested that just 9% of voters in the 2000 local elections were aged between 18 and 22. (Levin 2000; HSRC 2001) ‘Youth alienation’ became a common newspaper headline, and young people (briefly) became the focus of politicians and the media. Sadly, few moved beyond the well-worn question: “What’s wrong with our youth?” Their question should have been re-phrased to ask: “What have we done wrong in our attempts to work with youth?”

All major South African youth initiatives of the 1990s – whether emanating from government or civil society – have collapsed. (Everatt 2000) ‘Youth’ is officially defined in South Africa as including all those aged between 14 and 35, and comprise 40% of the total population. Government’s development programmes commonly cite youth as a target group for employment, but none have set employment targets beyond 15%, and even these targets have proved difficult to meet. Youth-specific state structures have failed to mobilise youth or influence government departments to do so. Membership of the African National Congress Youth League (ANCYL) has plummeted from a (claimed) peak of three million in the early 1990s to some 110 000. (Sunday Times 22/4/2001) Warning signs in various sectors were visible long before the 1999 and 2000 elections, for those who cared to look for them.

In this brief paper, we assess some of the causal factors at work. These include a failure to operationalise youth development as a cross-cutting issue for government as a whole, the ‘ghettoising’ of youth matters in weak institutional structures, and the changing socio-political context in South Africa.

However, there is a more prosaic and unoriginal factor underlying most (if not all) of the failed attempts to mobilise young people. ‘Youth’ is consistently treated as a homogenous category. The early 1990s witnessed a focused attempt to unpack the concept, identify key groups and match them with service provision. Since then, no significant attempt has been made to identify different groups, develop appropriate communication mechanisms, or adequately provide for their various needs. This is a conceptual failing, with serious practical spin-offs. 

South Africa has the highest HIV infection rate in the world. ‘Youth’ – especially young women – are most at risk of infection. If HIV/AIDS programmes continue to try to reach and work with ‘the youth’ as an undifferentiated unit, they too will fail. The youth sector – including youth researchers – face their sternest challenge yet. Their nuanced understanding of youth – who they are, what they need, how to communicate with them and how to work with them - must infuse HIV/AIDS programmes and help move them away from their current status as a ‘health’ matter. If not, the costs will be even higher than the ‘impending catastrophe’ already facing South Africa. (loveLife 2000)

From ‘Lost Generation’ to ‘Marginalised Youth’ to ‘the youth’

In early 1990, political organisations were unbanned, political prisoners were released, and South Africa changed forever. Four years later, the first democratic general election took place. The intervening period was dominated by negotiations between former antagonists and the political violence that attended the process.

But much else was happening between 1990 and 1994. As the African National Congress (ANC) prepared for government, space opened for previously disadvantaged sectors to lobby for resources and delivery in post-apartheid South Africa. Research, consultation and policy-formulation took centre stage in many of these sectors, as activists turned their minds to policy matters and the practicalities of delivery.

Young people had played a key role in the anti-apartheid struggle, both as foot soldiers taking on the army and police occupying townships, and in leadership positions in the United Democratic Front (an internal umbrella body for organisations opposing apartheid). The costs of participating in the struggle were high. Education was disrupted through successive school boycotts, thousands of young people were detailed or tortured by police, and countless others were exposed to traumatic events as they participated in or witnessed violent clashes between communities and security forces, or within their communities.

In the 1990-1994 period, a youth-focused Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO), the Joint Enrichment Project (JEP), spearheaded a national effort to develop policy proposals for post-apartheid youth development. The approach was not based on any notion that youth had ‘earned’ special treatment because of their sacrifices during struggle (although many in the youth sector held this view). Quite the contrary: the JEP commissioned research and policy development based on a frank appraisal of the damage done to youth of all races under apartheid and what would be needed to deal with its after-effects. A national consultative process focused on the needs of youth – especially ‘marginalised’ youth.

The process consciously sought to get beyond the ‘Lost Generation’ label the media commonly attached to young (black) people by identifying the needs of ‘real’ young people. At its core lay a basic premise: ‘youth’ had become a construct of struggle (the ‘Young Lions’ of the ANC or the ‘Lost Generation’ of its opponents) and needed empirical content with practical application. As a construct, ‘youth’ masked the differentiated experiences and needs of 11 million people aged between 16 and 30, who were at different life-stages, undergoing various sets of transitions, and most of whom had been systematically denied basic human rights such as security, food, shelter, and education. Meeting those needs was central to producing citizens that could meet the challenges of the new South Africa.

The faces behind the mask

Using the notion of ‘marginalisation’, young people of all races between 16 and 30 races were surveyed, and responses assessed against a ries emerged. A quarter of respondents scarcely registered on the scale at all, and were regarded as ‘fine’. Four in ten showed worrying signs on a limited number of indicators. However, 27% scored high on many of the indicators, and were regarded as ‘marginalised’ – that is, they exhibited negative symptoms but were still available to youth development programmes, and urgent interventions were required to draw them out of the margins and equip them to enter mainstream civil life. The remaining 5% - controversially labelled ‘lost’ - scored high across virtually all the indicators, and were considered beyond the reach of conventional youth development programmes other than those operating via the judicial or correctional service system. (Everatt & Orkin 1993)

The next step was to work with youth structures and sectoral specialists to devise policy proposals that matched the different categories emerging from the research process; these were later adopted at a national conference. (Everatt 1995) Many recommendations were sector-specific. But the overarching approach was that the needs of youth were multifaceted and not sector-specific; and that integrated development programmes were needed to meet those needs. This required new skills for working with youth at project level. It also required a new mindset where ‘youth’ was not the purview of a youth-focused Ministry; rather, youth development had to be mainstreamed in all line function departments, so as to be reflected in both policy formulation and the services provided by those programmes. The approach was ambitious, but in the heady days prior to democracy, anything seemed possible.

Failing at the final hurdle

While the youth sector was developing its policy platform, the ANC and its allies were drafting the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP), both a blueprint for government and an election manifesto. Successive drafts of the RDP were circulated within the ANC-led alliance, generating heated debate and much horse-trading; lobbying was critical if sectors were to win support for their proposals. But the youth sector faltered at this final, critical stage; in-fighting became more widespread, battles raged over the pros and cons of a Youth Ministry, former allies in other sectors were more concerned with their own battles, and the youth sector failed to win wider support for its demands. (This is analysed in detail in Everatt 2000.)

When the ANC finally released the RDP in 1994, the impact of this missed opportunity was evident. The RDP failed to reflect any notion that ‘youth’ was a construct within which were very different kinds of young people with different needs and included none of the policy proposals developed to help meet those different needs. (ANC 1994) A national youth service programme was the only substantive recommendation offered by the RDP.

Where youth did appear in the RDP, it was alongside women, people with disabilities, those living in rural areas and others cited as target groups for development and anti-poverty programmes. Mainstreaming youth development was completely absent from the RDP. Three years of consultation, research, policy development and lobbying had come to virtually nothing.

Missed opportunities and key lessons

Looking back at this period comprises a review of the rise and fall of integrated youth development. Three points should be made. Firstly, the youth sector supported an endeavour that was informed by a frank appraisal of the damage done to youth under apartheid and an assessment of their potential, in order to develop a strategic approach to youth development as well as sector-specific demands.

At one level, the process sought to displace labels such as ‘Lost Generation’ and ‘Young Lions’; and to challenge those uttering aphorisms such as ‘the youth are our future’ to support policy proposals designed to equip youth for that future. At a deeper level, it sought to understand what ‘youth’ actually meant in South Africa – could young people from widely divergent backgrounds be categorised by age as well as need and potential? Were there commonalities across race, sex and other axes? How could their needs be met? Was there a strategic approach to youth development that would allow the post-apartheid government to maximise impact in a context of using limited resources to meet the needs of all South Africans for the first time?

Secondly, a strategic approach was developed, namely integrated youth development.  This was taken to include the need to understand young people in their own context, acknowledge and respond to their different needs, and work with them on their own terms as partners rather than passive beneficiaries. In developmental terms, youth (defined then as people between 16 and 30) had shared needs with children and adults. But they had additional needs: negative socio-economic factors impacted more severely on younger than older people and became enmeshed with their own transitional life-stages, in turn amplified by coinciding with South Africa’s transition from apartheid to democracy.

Apartheid had disrupted the life-course of most young South Africans. Young teenagers were parents and heads of households. People in their early 30s had been involved in protest since 1976, and wanted a chance to complete their education. While youth had shown enormous resilience in the face of apartheid, many were deeply scarred, others full of rage, others anomic and hopeless, and most lacked the resources (internal and external) to process their experiences. Youth representatives argued that these factors should be accounted for in the design of programmes, their communication strategies, the assets they provided, and the services they offered at project level; if not, they would inevitably surface later in various, many disruptive, forms.

Finally, churches, trade unions, political parties and others civil society organisations were initially active supporters of the youth sector process. But their involvement waned, precisely as the older male leaders of the ANC began chiding youth to get back to school, to be more disciplined, and the like. As politics began to normalise, youth were expected to take their allotted place as a junior partner and obey the rules. They were effectively ‘re-marginalised’ by precisely the political processes that heralded the end of apartheid. Many drifted out of politics; some joined the Self Defence Units created in response to political violence, while others turned to crime. (Simpson 2001; Straker 1992) Youth NGOs were left to work in their own sector.

The notion of ‘marginalised’ youth – scarred by the past, wanting to participate constructively in the future, but needing assistance to do so – had been sympathetically received by the media and civil society. This too faded. By the time an ANC government was elected to power, youth and crime were as synonymous in the media as youth and violence had been in the 1980s. 

To be continuted in the following two editions of Phatlalatsa:

  • Then – and now
  • The downward spiral of youth in SA 1993 – 2000
  • Politics and gangs
  • Government and youth
  • Youth culture/s
  • Starting the learning curve again
  • Conclusion: towards meeting the challenge

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