How will the youth of 2012 be defined?
Crass materialism has trumped the intellect
THE youth have been called many names. In the 1990s they were referred to as the "Boom Shaka" generation. In 2000 they were called the "born-free" generation. In 2012, how would they be defined?
To answer this question is to pose yet another important one: what is the social character of South African youth today?
Although it may not have been their fault, nor intent, this characterisation followed the emergence of a popular kwaito music group, Boom Shaka.
It became a euphemism for a social character of entertainment and obscene lifestyles the youth were leading at the time.
While we cannot tell whether the group was itself promiscuous or leading a reckless lifestyle, their dance moves and outfits were seen among adults as indecent.
Most parents did not approve of their children emulating the dress code and dancing style of the group. But it enjoyed popular support among the youth.
Miniskirts, stomach-out tops, long hair for girls and boots (mainly brown), big-pocketed jeans, shirts and belt hanging, and funny haircuts for boys became fashionable. Teenagers could be found in streets dancing and imitating Boom Shaka. It was very popular.
But what did the phrase Boom Shaka generation actually mean?
According to Wikipedia, Boom Shaka's "sexy kwaito dance moves invokes a type of female sexuality that many find degrading". Their "skimpy outfits continued to fuel the debate between liberation and degradation".
Thus, their entertaining musical talent and sexy dance moves notwithstanding, to be referred to as a Boom Shaka generation was not a compliment. It was demeaning.
It meant that the generation of youth led a lifestyle of nudity, of hyper-sexual activity, overindulgence in entertainment. It was disrespectful and represented the decline of morality in society.
As the culture of entertainment was gaining popularity, politicians found it difficult to draw the crowds to stadiums if they were not accompanied by a popular kwaito star. This is how President Jacob Zuma and Chomee have become so inseparable.
Fast-forward to 2000, new phrases emerged to describe the social character of the youth. The "born free" generation was perhaps the most popular. This phrase was not necessarily distinct from the social character of the Boom Shaka generation. It had a similar meaning of a free youth that had no sense of national duty.
Like the Boom Shaka generation, born free was not a compliment. The social character of the born-free generation was perceived to be carefree over-indulgence in leisure, entertainment and promiscuity.
Reference to a born free was used to describe the youth as an ignorant generation that had no regard for history but was at the same time happy to enjoy life under a free and democratic dispensation.
In the townships, new phrases such as "cheese boy" can be linked to this characterisation of youth as born-frees. This was mainly used to describe the youth who came from well-to-do families, who had everything they needed from sneakers to cellphones and sometimes a car.
But the emergence of a cheese boy was the harbinger of an even more pervasive culture of conspicuous consumption in our society. This culture defines the social character of sections of our youth today.
As the economy was booming, conspicuous consumption began to take root. It was during this time that a black middle class was also emerging, following the implementation of BEE.
What is conspicuous consumption and how does it find expression in our youth today?
In his 1899 masterpiece on the theory of the leisure class, respected American economist Thorstein Veblen defined conspicuous consumption as "the spending of money for and the acquiring of luxury goods and services to publicly display economic power . such a public display of discretionary economic power is a means either of attaining or of maintaining a given social status".
Many South Africans in rural and urban areas are familiar with these forms of display of wealth. Each community has its own well-known tycoons who have a fleet of cars, several mansions, four cell-phones, Harley Davidson motor bike(s) and quad bikes.
There are even known places where these people meet to show off their wealth. These people are not just socialites; some are politicians, to whom communities put their hopes for social upliftment.
So, how can the social character of the youth be described in conspicuous consumption, especially if the youth are generally unemployed? Those who ask should familiarise themselves with the new popular township culture called skhothane.
According to Fikile-Ntsikelelo Moya: "Skhothanes are groups of teenagers who compete with each other over who has the most expensive clothes and drinks the dearest alcohol. Sometimes they publicly burn their clothes and money as a show of how their parents can afford to buy them more fancy stuff."
It is very clear that Veblen's definition of conspicuous consumption, however long ago it was written, best describes the skhothanes. Imbued in the skhothane culture is Veblen's view that: "Since the consumption of these more excellent goods is evidence of wealth, it becomes honorific; and conversely, the failure to consume in due quantity and quality becomes a mark of inferiority and demerit."
Therein lies the dangers of this culture. Should it be allowed to grow, social standing in society will be defined in the materials that one has accumulated.
Crass materialism has trumped the intellect. Society looks down on those who have nothing to show off.
The chase for bling is driving some to turn to illegal means of wealth accumulation.
Having understood the evolving culture of youth in our society today, we find ourselves asking the same question: How will the youth of 2012 be defined?
Most importantly, what should the youth do to turn around the negative characterisation that marked the last 18 years of our democracy?
- Malada is a senior researcher at the Forum for Public Dialogue. He is also a member of the Midrand Group