President's message of hope not striking a chord with SA's youth

President Cyril Ramaphosa delivers the keynote address during National Youth Day at the Polokwane Cricket Club. His message is lost on SA's youth. /Siyabulela Duda
President Cyril Ramaphosa delivers the keynote address during National Youth Day at the Polokwane Cricket Club. His message is lost on SA's youth. /Siyabulela Duda

There is a seeming contrast between the upbeat tone of President Cyril Ramaphosa's inaugural weekly message about the country's prospects and the attitudes of young people.

Ramaphosa was candid about not meeting expectations. He conceded that the widespread change he promised has not yet come. The pace of change is slow and grinding.

But his message is another call for citizens to be patient. He is not admitting failure, nor is he saying that the ANC-led government is not up to the task. He is saying that change is still on the horizon.

"After a decade of low growth and deepening poverty, people are looking for signs of progress in tackling the many challenges confronting our country," Ramaphosa said.

Young people are questioning the value of being active citizens, of making the effort to participate in democratic processes and platforms. They do not see why they should hold out for something better. They are not looking out for signs of progress because they are struggling to believe in it.

Speaking to young people in Johannesburg and Kwa-Thema this week about active citizenship and democracy, I was confronted with an overwhelming feeling of disenfranchisement. Young people are increasingly despondent.

Asking young people to wait is a tall ask. They are disproportionately affected by the country's problems owing mainly to demographics.

While the initiative to speak to the nation regularly about what government is doing is in keeping with the values of transparency and accountability, it too runs the risk of becoming just another platform for government to speak at and over people rather than to and with them.

There is a cognitive dissonance between the language of hope constantly punted by councillors, political party campaigners and politicians at community meetings and consultations and the daily experience of unmet expectations.

The pattern of creating expectations, talking of opportunities for young people and communities, calling them to apply or sign up for benefits and promising delivery of amenities and services; and then failing to deliver, is fuelling disengagement and despondency not just with the political system but with life. There is a thread that ran through my conversations with students.

The political system, politicians and bureaucratic structures of institutions including higher education are completely out of touch with the lived experiences, needs and aspirations of communities.

The language of promise that has been employed by politicians for decades to placate communities into accepting that delivery is a future reality rather than a present truth, is feeding disillusionment, depression and discouragement.

Young people are sometimes accused of being lazy, feeling entitled, not taking initiative and being willfully ignorant and passive when it comes to local politics and community engagements.

But this narrative is not borne out in the hive of activity in communities. Young people are active, actively trying to take advantage of opportunities and circumstances that will improve their social status and pull them out of poverty.

Unfortunately, those activities are not always personally affirming and contribute to the social ills that characterise many of the country's communities.

The role models for success are the criminals, corrupt individuals and politically connected people who drive fancy cars and live lavish lifestyles in the face of hungry youth.

Drug abuse, risky sexual behaviour, gender-based violence and crime that are rife among youth and ravaging communities, is a manifestation of politics gone wrong, as much as it is a consequence of socioeconomic pressures.

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