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n 1980 former president Nelson Mandela wrote a message to the nation from Robben Island. The message was a call for unity among the oppressed after the 1976 youth revolt.
In his message Mandela described the revolt as a verdict that apartheid had failed: "Our people remain unequivocal in its rejection. The young and the old, parent and child, all reject it. At the forefront of this wave of unrest were our students and youth ... nothing demonstrates the utter bankruptcy of apartheid as the revolt of our youth."
Mandela's message captured the role that the youth played in bringing an end to the evil system of apartheid, infusing the struggle with a revolutionary spirit. Now, 34 years later, the challenges are different. The youth are faced with the responsibility of building a new nation. This means they must be part of building a socially cohesive, prosperous and politically stable society.
In their fight against apartheid the youth faced being teargassed and killed. Imbued with the revolutionary spirit, they spoke of their blood watering the tree of freedom.
Today, they face the challenges of lack of skills, poor education, joblessness, poverty and HIV-Aids. And they face these obstacles in the context of being marginalised by the new political order.
Democracy means all citizens have the right to participate in the governing of their lives. Theoretically this was enhanced by the government's commitment to participatory governance, that is, turning the maxim "the people shall govern" into reality.
This was done through the creation of forums in which communities take part in the governance of their lives. However, citizens have become lulled into a state of acquiescence, giving those in power a blank cheque to prescribe policy.
It is this acquiescence that leads to a situation where only the organised and the affluent have the right to be heard. Youth organisations are a typical example. The ANC Youth League has positioned itself as the force that is in the forefront of youth activism. Given its relationship with the ruling party, its voice is the most audible.
Its stated policies are presented as the voice of the youth, especially the "African child" as ANCYL president Julius Malema is wont to say.
There is a need for the youth to interrogate these positions. Failure to do so will allow those in power to conflate their political ambitions with the youth's aspirations.
Regarding "participatory democracy", the youth must discern when the government is accommodating certain groupings because they deliver certain constituencies.
As they did in 1976, the youth must take up the cudgels and fight tendencies that undermine, for example, the quality of education.
They must tell errant teachers that their behaviour is contrary to the ethos of nation-building. This includes talking to teachers belonging to "democratic" organisations like Sadtu. The youth must not allow their so-called leaders to speak for them, but with them.
They must interrogate concepts like participatory democracy to see whether they are merely ways of accommodating those who articulate the government's policy in the name of activism.
Youth activism must be driven by commitment to effective governance and enhancing the voices of the marginalised; those still voiceless in a country often lauded for its commitment to freedom of expression, those who are in survival mode in a nation often commended for effectively managing its economy.