“The people of South Africa have spoken in these elections. They want change! And change is what they will get. Our plan is to create jobs, promote peace and reconciliation, and to guarantee freedom for all South Africans. We will tackle the widespread poverty so pervasive among the majority of our people. By encouraging investors and the democratic state to support job creating projects…” Nelson Mandela Inaugural Address, 09 May 1994.
These words from our former president were received with tremendous joy by most South Africans; they spoke of a new chapter and the very essence of a rainbow nation. The ambitious Reconstruction and Development Plan that Mandela spoke of in his inaugural speech, was abandoned after two years of its inception due to its flawed implementation. Then the baton was handed over to the Mbeki administration who implemented GEAR (Growth, Employment and Redistribution) which was aimed at cutting apartheid-era debt.
The big question is, more than two decades into our democracy, how do the youth perceive the state of our nation? The real truth is that the opinions amongst South African youth are as vast as the ocean but one thing is common, the youth is angry and frustrated. Yes there is acknowledgement that so much good has come in the form of opportunities for those previously marginalised. But the struggle really continues. South Africa is divided. Some feel there is still vast inequalities, and believe that during the transition period people who had been tormented during Apartheid were asked to forgive and forget too quickly. Matters were swept under the carpet for the sake of peace. People are upset with the ANC, but they don’t trust opposition parties like the DA because they feel that underlying them is a white supremacist agenda.
The struggle continues in different forms, black youth are encouraged go to school; get good grades; get degrees but then they fall within the unemployment statistics again. Sometimes they need to fight their way into graduate programmes, just to prove themselves so that they can at least land a contract to pay off their student loans. Amongst the student loans, their salaries also need to provide for their families and in most instances the youth end up in a vicious cycle of debt.
Others believe that the new South Africa has created an elite black middle class. A lot more black people have been given access to power in the different factions of society, and the question that is being posed is what are they doing with it? But the issue is also much deeper than this, in that, this has created a unique social stratification where the poor aren’t just black and the rich aren’t just white. The rich become richer and the poor become poorer. The wealth that was meant to be redistributed for the betterment of all has been stuck with a fortunate few.
Those who have benefited from the opportunities afforded post apartheid believe that this poor political leadership crisis is not necessarily a situation unique to South Africa, but that actually there is a global crisis politically and economically and that in itself has had a tremendous negative impact on Africa and South Africa. A common perception shared by most of the youth is that our democracy is threatened. And there are three major issues which pose a threat to the very essence of our democracy; these are poor leadership; high unemployment rate and the declining education system.
Our current National Development plan (NDP) presents a sound proposal on how we can make South Africa a prosperous country, free of unemployment by 2030. It speaks to improving our education system, labour market and other spheres of society but will require much hard work. There is a shared sense amongst South Africans of every race that we need to choose a political leadership that will actively focus on the provision of basic services like water and housing; education and employment thereby restoring dignity to our people and our Democracy. Nelson Mandela and many others who were the founding fathers of our democracy were all about that.
Perhaps we have to come to an understanding that, Our Democracy is a continuing journey of ups and downs, and right now we are experiencing some of the downs. We need to realize that it’s not just one person who can help South Africa but that we actually need an influential network of like-minded people.
Special thanks to Siphokazi Ntetha, Lihle Malwandla, Dineo Makuru, Kagiso Dlodlo, Tshepo Sesioana and Snenhlanhla Hlengwa who contributed their invaluable comments for this piece.