Opinion | Why youth participation must be adopted. - Youth Capital

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Opinion | Why youth participation must be adopted.

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Four out of every 10 South Africans are young people, aged between 15 and 34 years old. In acknowledgement of the unique needs and potential of this demographic, South Africa is one of 32 countries with an operational youth policy framework. In theory, this could strengthen the government’s efforts in ensuring that youth is a transitory stage where young people are supported to thrive.

The truth is that most young people in South Africa face an immense struggle as they bear the disproportionate effects of South Africa’s socio-economic challenges. We tend to forget that since most of our population is under 35 years old, we should treat all development issues as youth issues.

Conversations about youth development happen on the periphery of the national conversation, and young people have to fight to sit at the table. 

Significant moments

In the face of increased challenges exacerbated by the pandemic and the lockdown, it’s been encouraging to see significant moments for youth policy and participation unfolding at the national level. 

In 2020, the Department of Women, Youth and Persons with Disabilities (DWYPD) gazetted the National Youth Policy (NYP), which outlines the government’s plans for youth across five focus areas until 2030. In January 2021, the DWYPD called on youth and other stakeholders to make inputs into the National Youth Development Agency (NYDA) Amendment Bill, to make changes to the NYDA Act; the proposed edits included changes to the board members term of office, the executive authority at the agency, voting rights and the visibility of the agency in local areas.

The NYDA board positions were advertised earlier in the year, and DWYPD will start interviewing the shortlisted candidates at the end of this month. The NYDA issued a draft of the Integrated Youth Development Strategy (IYDS), the critical document that outlines the implementation of the NYP; for the occasion, the NYDA hosted consultations and invited young people to send comments.

These policy moments indeed build momentum for participation, but the lack of a monitoring and evaluation framework for the NYP and the disconnected IYDS indicators made us wonder how serious we, as a country, are about successful implementation. 

If we want to promote youth participation, there are three major shifts that we need to adopt.

Young people’s lived experience should drive their development.

There is often the perception that young people are the ones benefiting from a participative process. On the contrary, young people’s experience must be the starting point for policies and programmes that address their real needs.

The Second Chance Matric Programme is an example of this: designed by the Department of Basic Education (DBE) to offer young people a pathway to obtain their matric qualification outside of the full-time schooling system, the programme often misses the people it wants to serve.

Youth Capital’s research showed that many young people are unaware of its existence or unsure of how to register for it. Those who do register must jump through many hoops as the DBE provides limited academic support. If young people’s experiences were included more meaningfully, existing government programmes could be incredibly effective.

Young people are a heterogeneous group.

Young people aged 15-35 play different roles in their communities and in our economy, live in other contexts, and put forward different solutions. The representation of young people in official spaces should reflect such diversity and not only dominant voices. 

Youth Lab’s Public Achievement Programme is an example of advancing youth participation as a heterogeneous group. This programme is designed to teach about democratic practices and principles and works with young people to design small scale interventions for their communities.

Participants have the freedom to organise themselves into teams and design and implement their own community development project. The process creates a culture of active participation, where all voices are heard while equipping young people with the necessary tools needed to participate more fully in the uplifting of their communities.

Young people are in new spaces.

When discussing youth participation in policy processes or elections, we often hear of youth apathy. However, to ensure that young people’s voices and experiences shape policies and programmes, we need to meet young people where they are. Since 2020, Youth Capital and Youth Lab have created a collaborative WhatsApp group for young people and youth formations to engage critically and submit policy comments. The group participants have steered processes concerning the NYP and the IYDS and kept the DWYPD accountable to the NYDA board timeline. 

The current crisis gives us yet another chance to reimagine a system where young people’s lived experiences are at the centre of all policy interventions.

While government departments have been trying to connect with young people, collaborations with youth development organisations and youth formations could easily bridge existing gaps; and help us keep our focus on policy processes.

– Kristal Duncan-Williams is the Project Lead at Youth Capital, a youth-led advocacy campaign to reduce youth unemployment. Pearl Pillay is the Managing Director at Youth Lab, a non-partisan think tank to put forward youth positions on pressing issues. Tessa Dooms is the Director of Jasoro Consulting, a Development Consultancy that provides organisations with services on policy, programming and organisational strategies toward the development of Africa. 

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