Take youth activism beyond varsity to transform all of SA

The writer says while the struggle for free higher education is important, it must also involve the socio-economic transform of the country's economy. /Alon Skuy
The writer says while the struggle for free higher education is important, it must also involve the socio-economic transform of the country's economy. /Alon Skuy

In the last few weeks I have had the opportunity to interact with youth who shared their perspectives on politics and economic change in the country.

As they observe the goings on in the country, they are clearly not happy with the slow pace of development and transformation.

Many of them seniors at universities, they shared their frustration about the gap between the world of well informed and exposed debate at varsity and the paucity of information and resources in the villages and townships they come from.

They understand that their future depends on what is done in the present. Many of them are activists who participated in the various Must Fall campaigns. But their activism is stymied.

As they agitate for their cause of widening access and social and economic inclusion at institutions of higher learning, they're unable to translate their activism to issues that concern them and their communities beyond the university gates.

When among their privileged counterparts they exude a confidence that they can change the world.

But as soon as they step into the reality of their village and township, they retreat into a shell of timidity.

Failure of contemporary student activism is its insularity. While the struggle for fee-free higher education is important in its own right, failure to contextualise it within the broader struggle for education reform, including at basic education level, has made it divisive and narrow.

In the same vain, the struggle for social inclusion and transformation of former white institutions of higher learning in particular is also urgent, but it is important that it be located in broader socio-economic transformation and inclusion.

I can't say I blame these young people for their cognitive dissonance on struggles for transformation and inclusion. This cognitive dissonance is characteristic of the discourse, policy making, activism and advocacy on these matters.

Because the discourse and policy making of the democratic era has largely been premised on the two nations and two economies theory, the activism and advocacy that arises tends to follow the same pattern.

There is the world of the organised, developed, structured and formal which is located in suburbs and cities.

And then there is the disorganised, unstructured, underdeveloped and informal world located in townships, informal settlements and rural areas.

The lexicon of inclusion and transformation is steeped in elevating the world of the formal - the formal economy and the urban - while painting the world of the informal as undignified.

A good example of this practice is the discourse on small business development and identifying opportunities for investment. In the world of the formal, we talk about entrepreneurship, support for start-ups and networking for upcoming entrepreneurs.

In the world of the informal we speak of vendors and informal traders and survivalists. This has created the impression that the trade and markets that exist on the periphery of the urban is less than economic and not to be considered as an avenue for expanding participation and inclusion in the economy.

The discourse on transformation is thus dominated by the thinking that to be economically empowered is to neglect and abandon the periphery to seek inclusion into the so-called "formal economy".

University students whose education is indoctrinating them into this schizophrenic way of thinking do not see the townships and villages of their origin as spaces of opportunity but as places that need to be escaped.

Inclusion should be about defeating the indignity of poverty and inequality by enhancing the agency of their communities and investing in and growing the economic activities and markets of the villages and townships they come from.