South Africa's `Lost Generation'

Young people gave up their education to lead the struggle against apartheid; now millions of them need training and jobs

AT 26 years of age, Austin Kadiaka has sacrificed much for his political ideal of a liberated South Africa.

But the demise of apartheid has brought little comfort for Mr. Kadiaka. Violence in townships like Tembisa has escalated, and economic recession has intensified the grim legacy of apartheid.

Kadiaka's father died of natural causes in 1985. His mother was killed in the politically motivated bombing of his family's home in a township near Pretoria in 1986. Kadiaka now lives in a free-standing shack in back of his brother's house in this sprawling township east of Johannesburg.

He has never had a formal job. He has not completed his high school education, which was disrupted by school boycotts, political activities, and his detention without trial.

Kadiaka and tens of thousands of other youths pushed to the margins of society by inferior education, disrupted schooling, political turmoil, and apartheid, have been stereotyped as the "lost generation" of South Africa.

The political activists among the youths reject the "lost" label with contempt. They see themselves as a revolutionary elite who brought the white minority government to its knees.

"I don't like the term `lost generation,' " says Lebohang Mahanta, an organizer for the South African Communist Party (SACP).

"These are people who have sacrificed their education to make a contribution to the liberation of their country," says Mr. Mahanta, who is also an African National Congress official in strife-torn Sebokeng township. "When the ANC becomes a government, it will have a responsibility to give them skills and training so that they can be productive."

Sheila Sisulu, who heads a national program addressing marginalized youths, also says "lost generation" is a misnomer.

"We are dealing with a brutalized generation," Ms. Sisulu says, "but they are definitely not lost."

The youth revolution began with the 1976 Soweto uprising against the hated system of "Bantu education," an uprising that grew into a national revolt against white rule.

In 1984, the next generation of high school pupils rekindled the resistance to apartheid and sparked a nationwide rebellion that led to the declaration of a state of emergency in June 1986.

Those youths are now aged 16 to 30. They have sacrificed their schooling for political liberation.

"These were the two generations who were at the forefront of the political struggle," says Silwane Matoase, coordinator of the National Youth Development Co-ordinating Committee (NYDCC), which is involved in setting up a national peace and service corps for

marginalized youths.

"There is broad acknowledgement that the 1976 generation was instrumental in bringing about the political changes which are now unfolding," Ms. Matoase says. Service group proposed

A recent study of South African youths, released this month by the Community Agency for Social Enquiry (CASE), illustrates that the so-called "lost generation" is part of a far greater problem.

At a conference in Johannesburg June 8, 11 groups involved with the youth problem proposed the formation of a national service corps that would hire youths to build roads, housing, and schools.

The ruling National Party government has asked the National Peace Committee, a multiparty group promoting peace nationwide, to address urgently the formation of a Service and Training Youth Battalion that could benefit marginalized youths as soon as possible.

The battalion would be financed by government, the private sector, and international agencies. It would draw voluntary recruits for from six months to a year and provide job training. Estimated cost: up to $1 billion.

An ANC proposal for a national peace corps seemed to be aimed at compensating youths who had been active in political protest at the expense of their schooling. But the organizers of the conference insisted that aid should be applied without regard to politics.

"We need a range of options so that those who want to serve their country armed and in uniform can do so," says Sisulu, director of the Joint Enrichment Project (JEP), which is coordinating the national youth initiative, "while those who just want to pursue their education can do so, too.... It is vital that the whole issue of youth should not be in the political arena." Sisulu says that a National Youth Development Forum (NYDF) would establish the national peace and service corps - perhaps by mid-1994.

The CASE study, based on a nonracial sample of 2,200 youths nationwide, projected that a staggering 3 million of the country's 11.5 million youths between the ages of 16 and 30 are jobless.

Of these, perhaps 2.9 million are "marginalized" and in need of urgent help. Another 515,000 are "lost" - completely outside the social safety net.

Forty-three percent (4.7 million) of South Africa's youths are "at risk" - functioning in society, but showing signs of alienation and in urgent need of help.

Twenty-five percent (a projected 2.7 million) of those interviewed were "functioning well." A politicized generation

Although the research - the most thorough survey ever undertaken of South African youths - confirmed the depth of the problem, it also dispelled many misconceptions.

The survey found that only 12 percent of all youths belong to political organizations, while 38 percent are members of churches and choirs. Thirty-two percent belong to sports organizations.

But, as members of the "Soweto generation" point out, even those who were not members of political groups were highly politicized and conversant in liberation politics.

"We are talking about a highly politicized generation of youth," Ms. Matoase says.

"While the vast majority were the victims of disrupted schooling, inferior education, and socioeconomic deprivation, they were all politicized."

Matoase says that some of the 1976 generation have made the transition from resistance to reconstruction, but some are in danger of being left behind.

The survey also found that while most youths were despondent about their prospects in the present economic recession, they were also ambitious and had a positive self-image. "The research demonstrates that youths are engageable," says Dave Everatt, deputy director of CASE.

"We have not `lost' a generation of young people," Mr. Everatt continues. "Despite millions of young people being pushed to the periphery of society - systematically deprived of its resources, structures, and support - they have not given up on themselves. They are looking for reengagement," he says.

"With carefully planned, well-resourced, and urgent interventions, millions of young people can be drawn into educational, economic, political, and legal life, where they can make an essential contribution to our country's development," Dr. Everatt says.

Matoase says that marginalized youths did not suffer from a morale problem. They were engaged in debating what forms of international loans and investment would most benefit youths and what could be done to ensure that development funds were used wisely.

The CASE study was commissioned by the JEP - an initiative launched in 1986 by the South African Council of Churches and the South African Catholic Bishops Conference in a bid to retain a culture of learning. Youth issues publicized

In June 1991, JEP convened an influential conference on youth in Broederstroom, near Pretoria, which was attended by 300 representatives of 50 organizations concerned with youth. The conference instructed JEP to conduct an in-depth study of young people between the ages of 16 and 30.

"Shortly after the assassination of [South African Communist Party leader] Chris Hani, the issue of young people received a lot of media attention," JEP's Sisulu says.

The April 10 killing, allegedly by right-wing extremists, was a major blow to Kadiaka and his many "comrades," as the youthful activists in the ANC are known.

"After the death of Hani, all of us thought that the ANC would go back to the armed struggle," Kadiaka says. "Unfortunately, that did not happen."

The focus on the problems "was a bit of a panic reaction in response to images of rampaging youth on television," Sisulu says. "It discounted two years of detailed scientific research which has given us a comprehensive understanding of the situation."

The response after Mr. Hani's death centered on how to halt the role of youth in violence. "It is true that the youth need peace," Sisulu says. "But they also need skills and training and education."

Naeem Jeenah, deputy chairman of the NYDCC, says the marginalization of youth is not exclusively a youth problem and should be seen as a problem for all of South African society.

"Our main objective is not to get the youth off the streets and turn them into cheap labor," he says, but "how youth can best be engaged to better themselves." Going back to school

Joseph Molefe, a 25-year-old from Tembisa, hopes that things will improve under a democratic government and that he will be able to finish his schooling.

"I want to go back to school and write my final exams as a private candidate," he says. "Under a new government, it will be easier to get a job."

Kadiaka is typical of a generation that has been brutalized by political violence and crime. He was barred from returning to school after four months of detention in 1988 and was assisted by a church group to study privately in 1989. But the funds ran out at the end of that year.

Today he is enrolled part-time at the Thutoke Matla ("education is power") High School - a far cry from the "Liberation before Education" slogan of the mid-1980s.

"If the South African government agrees to hand over power at the negotiating table," he says, "it will be because of our generation. So we are wondering why - when we are being killed in the streets just for wearing an ANC T-shirt - we are supposed to be quiet." Kadiaka was shot in the elbow by a member of a criminal gang while walking on the street last month.

The gang is known as the Toasters - some of whom are former political activists who have turned to crime and protection rackets. Some are former tsotsis (township gangsters) who rode the political train while it suited them and were known as "comrade-tsotsis."

Today "com-tsotsi" has been banished from the vocabulary of township activists as they battle to hold their political base and maintain discipline in their ranks.

Young people like Kadiaka are caught in a web of high expectation and entitlement that will strongly challenge a new government: "Once there is a political settlement, everything will come right," Kadiaka says. "The violence will end, and there will be political stability. Then the ANC will call on foreign countries to invest and there will be jobs for all."

About these ads
Sponsored Content by LockerDome

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.

Loading...

Loading...

Loading...

Save for later

Save
Cancel

Saved ( of items)

This item has been saved to read later from any device.
Access saved items through your user name at the top of the page.

View Saved Items

OK

Failed to save

You reached the limit of 20 saved items.
Please visit following link to manage you saved items.

View Saved Items

OK

Failed to save

You have already saved this item.

View Saved Items

OK