The Trouble With Youth Leagues

Oct 27, 11 The Trouble With Youth Leagues

Cosatu announced recentlythat it is starting its own youth wing. Cosatu Young Workers will target youth, particularly those in learnerships through Setas, who they feel are being exploited. The cut-off age will be 40.

Yet another youth league. That brings to… well, many the number of youth wings in South Africa. Youth leagues ostensibly set up to give the youth a say in how organisations work and, at least if the ANC is to be believed, to provide a platform for the leaders of the future to learn and develop. This makes some kind of sense. They also (ostensibly) provide a platform for youth to test out their radical, revolutionary ideas before they get into real politics. They’re meant to be a place for radical hoodie-wearing teenagers who want to overthrow the government to deal with their angst before they get to make decisions that affect people’s lives. The problem comes when youth leagues include everyone under the age of 35 or 40. Particularly when most of the people in the country are under the age of 35 or 40.

South Africa’s population bubble is in the 20s. We’re not Japan. Our majority is not aging out of the working system, they’re 20-something, pissed off and looking for work. And the current system has put them in the same small box as the 30-somethings who have finally managed to find a minimum wage job (if they’re lucky) and are still clamouring for respect in every other respect. And it places all of them at the kids table, sitting in a corner watching the grown-ups make the decisions.

Youth leagues provide a platform for the perspectives of a small but important group when they represent the voices of the minority. When most people are classified as youth, this set-up provides a nice, safe, easy way to shut ‘youth’ issues out mainstream national politics – like a slightly less grossly unequal economy and people having jobs . ‘Youth issues’ are given a separate, distinct and less important platform, so they don’t cloud the ‘real issues’. ‘Youth issues’ become something the youth must debate and find solutions to.

Perhaps that isn’t fair – many groups have recently begun to recognise the problem of ‘youth unemployment’, particularly after it was thought to have played a role in the Arab spring uprisings. ‘Youth unemployment’. The term conjures up an image of some teenager looking for an after-school job. I read a study recently which said that a person growing up in a township in South Africa and going to a township school was highly unlikely to find any job at all before the age of 35. By that that half the people I know have changed careers – tried one, got bored and moved on to another. They have houses. They have cars. They have wives and husbands and life-partners. They have married and sometimes divorced. They have teenage children.

They are adults. 28-year olds, 32-year olds, 40-year olds. They’re not kids. But our political system treats them like kids. Because they’re “youth”, they’re too young to take on real leadership, to hold real positions, to be part of the real discussions. Sometimes they get to come to the main meetings so that they can watch how the grown-ups do it. And if they sit very quietly and do what they’re told for half of their working lives, they might finally graduate to being adults when they hit the magic ages of 35 or 40.

And sometimes the ‘youth’ get tired of sitting in the background, watching. In the case of the ANCYL, they talk more than many in the parent body would like. But the parent body is easily able to dismiss their statements and outbursts, as the ANC so regularly does, because they are ‘still young’ and ‘still learning’. Instead of dealing with the issues raised by this group, they are kept out of serious discussion and relegated to the realm of street protests and somewhat-hysterical media reports. ‘Youth issues’ begin to look fringe and irresponsible. ‘Youth’ become angry and begin to see the attraction of the radical.

South Africa’s ‘youth’ are not hoodie-wearing, teenage hooligans out to vandilise, be rude and overthrow the government. They’re mothers and fathers and working-age adults. And perhaps the reason they’re so angry is not only some abstract idea of an unfinished revolution, it’s that they’re sick of being ignored. It’s time to let the ‘youth’ (or at the very least the 30-somethings!) sit at the grown-ups table, as they would be able to do in almost any other democracy, so that their issues and coincidentally the issues of the majority, can finally be taken seriously by their own political parties.