Once again, it is that time of the year when companies, government departments, families and individuals take stalk of the past twelve months in order to make New Year resolutions. In their collective and individual capacities, the youth as a social stratum also ought to reflect on the year that was to position themselves for the year to come.
Like waves at sea, 2009 indeed had its highs and lows for the youth sector. From a policy development perspective, many would agree that this was a memorable year. In March, government adopted the National Youth Policy (NYP). In May, our country ratified the African Youth Charter (AYC).
Few would argue against the suggestion that the launch of the National Youth Development Agency (NYDA) in June was the highest point for the youth sector. Whilst a great deal of work remains to be done, the merger of the National Youth Commission and Umsobomvu Youth Fund to form the NYDA should be counted among important milestones towards a new integrated approach on youth development.
However, it is not the loftiness of the ideas contained in the policies that will make a change. The real test lies in the ability of our youth leaders to translate the noble ideas into substantive programmes. We all know that very few policies look ugly on paper; but the beauty of initiatives must be displayed in outcomes.
With a budget of less than 400 million a year, the manner in which the task of putting in place provincial and local structures of the NYDA is handled will provide an answer to the haunting question: will the NYDA be able to rescue millions of young South Africans from the crunching jaws of poverty and unemployment?
The greater participation of the youth in the April elections has served to dispel the myth of youth apathy and to underline the urgency of youth issues. As the wave of election engulfed, more than 1.2 million youth (aged between 18 and 29) stampeded to register as new voters. Indeed, the high voter turn-out (of up to 18 million people) in the elections owes a great deal to youth participation.
As a nation, we are yet to go beyond youth issues as the substance of mid-year rituals – taking advantage of June 16 to wear expensive suits and make pretentious speeches. Beyond the youth month, few in our society – including youth leaders – have raised critical questions regarding the quality of education, the high rate of youth unemployment, youth culture and HIV and AIDS, or such related matters.
Fewer still have the temerity to link the prevailing weakness of advocacy on youth issues with general weaknesses in youth leadership. Youth development matters appear to have shed their blood at the altar of political power.
In the political shrill of screaming youth voices, our nation waited with impenitent ears to hear youth leaders explain the impact of the economic recession on the youth in particular. We know that when the recession hit our shores 73% of our youth were already languishing in unemployment. Few youth organisations, if any, can tell concretely as to the extent to which this situation has been compounded by the recession.
It is indeed a pity that the civil society movement – organised under the auspices of the South African Youth Council (SAYC) – has also failed to prove its presence. It would take serious awakening for the SAYC to shake off its current image as a handmaiden of some political youth leaders and government structures. Only time can tell if the powers-that-be will allow this to happen.
But as we wonder about the quality of our youth leadership, we should borrow a leaf from Mark Twain’s book, What is man, in which he counsels a young man thus: Man is “a product of his training … [he] is a chameleon; by the law of his nature he takes the color of his place of resort…the influences about him create his preference, his aversions, his politics, his tastes, his morals, his religion.” We, then, need to ask: is the poor quality of youth leadership in our country today not a reflection of a similar quality of leadership in society in general?
Whilst there have been major policy achievements for the youth sector in 2009, the capacity of the leadership to translate these into practical programmes is a question to which no clear answers seem available. Unfortunately, the collective advance of the youth in 2010 will depend on the very answers we have struggled to find in 2009.
Malada is a policy specialist at the National Youth Development Agency, and a member of the Midrand Group