There is a need for more young people in civil society and politics, not only as participants but as leaders. Through inter-generational leadership, the ability to imagine a better world and the creation of communities across different ideologies, people have the potential to tackle the many issues facing South African society, according to the reflections of civil society members at a Youth Capital virtual discussion on Thursday, writes Tamsin Metelerkamp
Young people are crucial to the change that is needed in the world. Throughout history, the youth have played a key role in the rejection of old, failing orders. Both politics and civil society, however, remain dominated by older people.
This, according to Mark Heywood, editor of Maverick Citizen, has got to change. There needs to be greater representation of the youth in politics and civil society, not just as participants, but as leaders.
“It falls upon civil society activists who’ve been around for many years, doing this work, to make sure that we enter into intergenerational dialogues,” said Heywood. “Not that we leave, but that we share, that we get behind people in new movements, so that new movements don’t have to repeat the mistakes of the past, but at the same time, can benefit from the successes and the learnings and the insights that we may have picked up along the way.”
Heywood was speaking at a Youth Capital virtual discussion, hosted in the organisation’s Twitter Space, on Thursday. The discussion centred on the opportunities and challenges in South African civil society. Other participants in the discussion included Natalie Kapsosideris of the Climate Justice Charter and Senzo Hlophe of the DG Murray Trust.
It is important to recognise the youth, not just as leaders of the future, but as members of society right now, said Kapsosideris. Issues within South Africa impact young people in the same way they impact all other groups in society, the difference being that young people can often provide a perspective on these issues that differs from their adult counterparts.
“Different generations will experience different things that give [them] different perspectives on different issues, and different ways of dealing with… problems,” she said, adding that education is a key area where youth have the potential to provide valuable insight based on direct engagement.
Young people hold a sense of imminent possibility, which is valuable in a space where there is much loss of hope and empathy, according to Hlophe. This potential should be complemented by a long-term vision of how to change systems and shift trajectories.
“I think as a country, as young people, …we must not then be obsessed with already made solutions, we must be open and be driven by curiosity in around how we tackle this country,” said Hlophe.
He argued that changing the dynamics of the country does not require being a CEO or member of Parliament, but rather making a difference in one’s own “small spaces” such that in 10 to 20 years’ time, young people of the next generation will be able to trace how their situation was influenced by past choices.
Advocating for change
Members of civil society need to have a large imagination in order to dream big and think “outside the world as we live it”, said Heywood. This allows them to realise that those issues they find problematic are not simply the order of things.
“[Y]ou have to work in a way that captures people’s imagination,” said Heywood. “I always think that we’re trying to reach out to people, we’re trying to persuade people who are like us, but are still feeling disempowered and passive.”
This involves persuading people that as citizens, they have power, and that power can be used to change their school, their university, their community and even the world, he continued.
Being able to conceptualise a different type of society should be coupled with an understanding of the practical pathways to reach that society.
“[T]here’s a big toolbox — there’s media, there’s protests, there’s litigation, there is advocacy, there’s teaching each other. The combination of all of those things that you use when you embark on a particular campaign to try to bring about a reform or an improvement,” said Heywood.
One of civil society’s greatest tools is unity and community across different ideas and ideologies, according to Kapsosideris. She referenced the stand that learners across South Africa took against racist rules in schools in 2020.
“[Learners] were speaking about their experiences, and they said, ‘Hey, well, this is a problem that’s happening in all of our schools, we should do something about it.’ And because it wasn’t just an instance that was happening at one school in an isolated situation, because it was happening in multiple locations, there was a lot more mobilisation and action that came from it,” she said.
The sense of community inherent in such movements allows civil society to reach a wider audience and build mass actions and campaigns, according to Kapsosideris.
At its core, civil society should be about putting people first, at the centre of development, said Hlophe. This involves redefining terms of recognition when it comes to issues of race, class, gender, sex or other identities.
“[O]ne of the things that colonisation, apartheid and many forms of oppression across the globe… tried to do is make people invisible, is make people to be unseen and unhappy,” said Hlophe. “And… all our work, at least in South Africa post-1994, has been putting faces [to] faceless people, voices on voiceless people, and identity on people that are not seen, that we purely reduce to numbers in terms of stats.”
Heywood echoed these sentiments, adding that working for change comes from a love of life and an understanding that all people are equal; that the pain a person observes in another could just as easily be their pain.