Political maturity in short supply
SOUTH Africa's political culture - characterised by bullying in political discourse, violent protests, uninspiring leadership and warring factionalism - is not ideal for the development of youths as leaders of tomorrow.
Thus, as we reflect about the state of the youth in politics, we should be more concerned about the state of political youth formations - the breeding grounds for future political leaders - than about the myth of youth apathy.
It is true that concerns about the youth's apathy have been growing since 1994. Such demeaning labels as the "lost generation" or the "born frees" have been used to project South African youths in the democratic dispensation as a generation of entertainment-mongers who have no interest in politics.
Contrary to the myth of the youth's apathy, the youth's participation in general elections is high. It is currently above 40% of registered voters: about 9.2million in 2004 and 9.8million in the 2009 elections.
Indeed, active citizenship in a democracy is not just about voting every five years. It is about taking responsibility and exercising one's democratic right to hold public representatives accountable.
For the youth this means going beyond youth issues such as the substance of mid-year rituals of the commemoration of June 16. Issues regarding the quality of education, youth unemployment and HIV and Aids and so on must dominate the discourse of youth politics.
A closer look at the never-ending service delivery protests also debunks this myth. The overwhelming majority of people participating in service delivery protests are, indeed, young people. They are as concerned about service delivery as they are about economic freedom in their lifetime.
In governance, the youth's participation is also promising. For example, about 15% (59 out of 400) of parliamentarians were 30 years or younger when they were elected to parliament after the 2009 elections. This is an indication that young people are engaged in politics, albeit their influence and or quality of engagement is debatable.
The existence of political youth formations - mainly wings of political parties - also serves to illustrate the greater interest of youth in politics. There is hardly a political party in South Africa without a youth wing.
What, then, is the state of political youth formations?
Political youth formations are a microcosm of the general state of politics. Few will disagree that the general state of our politics, characterised by poor leadership and factionalism, is reflected in political youth formations.
A culture of intolerance in debates, bullying and violent protests is as evident in youth formations as it is characteristic of main political parties.
For example, on leadership, if you pause and wonder what South Africa would look like under the leadership of Letlapa Mphahlele of the PAC you are likely to be as depressed as the person imagining Sindiso Magaqa of the ANCYL as a future leader of government business.
Indeed, very few political parties can say their current youth leaders are exemplars of what the heirs of tomorrow should be like.
The poor quality of youth leadership today is mainly a reflection of a general decline of leadership standards in political parties.
The crisis of leadership is also exacerbated by a pervasive cult of personality in our political system.
It is difficult to imagine the IFP beyond its current leader, Mangosothu Buthelezi, or the UDM beyond the personality of Bantu Holomisa.
Currently the ANC Youth League is also trapped in a personality cult. It is struggling to break out of the personality of its former president, Julius Malema. The remaining youth leaders are trying very hard to mimic him.
Debates are marked by bullying and howling. The controversy around The Spear is one such example, where bullying was abundantly deployed as a tactic to silence dissenting voices.
Howling is synonymous with Parliament - the place that ought to be a theatre of ideas. It is now difficult to differentiate between Parliament and a conference of the Young Communist League. They seem to operate on the basis of the same principle: he who shouts the loudest is the winner!
The prevailing youth leadership culture, characterised by plunder and slander, by ill-discipline, disrespect and arrogance, is not ideal for the development of future leadership.
Hardly a protest, even by the ruling party or its allies, ends without being punctuated by violence. It is an ingredient of a dominant political culture.
In its brutally honest assessment of what is wrong in South Africa today, the National Planning Commission concluded that our politics is "dominated by short-termism, tribalism or factionalism". This is true.
Not even Cope was able to cope with factionalism. It wrote its own epitaph before it could even hold an elective conference.
In the ruling party, factionalism has already begun to manifest itself in the worst forms of ethnicism and tribalism, and is weakening the glue that holds society together.
Sadly, this is the political culture under which future leaders are groomed. It is a rotten political culture that is in urgent need of therapy.
We must again pose the question: What kind of leaders will emerge from this culture? Will they be future tyrants or democrats? Will they be intellectuals or fools?
Will they have moral gravitas or questionable standing in society? Will they be our collective source of pride or embarrassment? And, importantly, how different will they be from the current crop - or the "strange breed" that Reuel Khoza speaks of?
All these questions are important as we reflect on the state of youth in politics. Thus, rather than worry about the myth of youth apathy, we should reflect deeply about the implications of current state of our politics for posterity.
Until we reverse the prevailing political culture, imagining the future in the hands of a current youth leader will be a source of despair.
- Malada is a senior researcher at The Forum for Public Dialogue. He is also a member of the Midrand Group