Beyond the 30th anniversary of June 16: Young people and social cohesion
By Busani Ngcaweni
A YEAR AGO, in the ISANDLA Development Communiqué of June 2005, Busani Ngcaweni and Lerato Ngoma observed:
“There are some contradictions in living life as a young person in South Africa today. If you are unemployed… the month of June creates spaces where you are able to remind those in power of the hardships involved in being poor, unskilled and unemployed. If you are [employed], depending on your level of consciousness, this date probably represents a day in which you can down your tools, enjoy the Comrades Marathon, go shopping or perhaps a day in which you can salute those who died in 1976 in order for us to be free and working today.”
This observation was important in two ways. First, it assumes that one’s economic status dictates the meaning of June 16. Second, it introduces the notion of consciousness which may trigger behaviour that supersedes economic status. Among a range of issues dominating current public discourse is social cohesion. This raises the question: what does one’s economic status and level of consciousness have to do with June 16 and social cohesion? In this offering, I argue that young people have a significant role to play in fostering social cohesion and this role requires priority in both policy and programmatic interventions.
Writing in the 19th century, the American sociologist Emile Durkheim observed that social cohesion involves interdependent connections that glue various elements and social constructs that make up a society. A recent Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) publication stated that in recent times, the social cohesion concept has been resurrected as a “framework and agenda for examining, promoting and managing the quality and sustainability of society.” One can infer from this submission that lack of social cohesion in society means the absence of the necessary ‘glue’ which holds communities together and therefore, a society that experiences weak social cohesion is arguably lacking a robust social anchor.
The most commonly employed definition of social cohesion elicits concepts and systems involving commonality, relationships, solidarity, identity, unity and other conditions necessary to produce sustainable households, communities and society. For the purposes of this analysis social cohesion is loosely treated as an outcome or demonstration of unity of purpose and shared values and destiny among citizens. The key question, then, is whether young South Africans have a role to play in the national effort. Work towards unpacking this enquiry is more urgent now as we celebrate the 30th Anniversary of June 16 and Related Uprisings and should be a precursor for future youth development interventions.
The soon to be released Macro Social Report of the Presidency corroborates earlier findings of the 10 Year Review and other studies analysing macro social trends in the country. For example, it confirms a consistent shift away from historical frames of references such as race and ethnic group. Instead, more and more South Africans are defining themselves in class terms. As the report notes: “while in 2000, 14% used class or occupational descriptions for primary self-definition, 37% defined themselves in this way in 2004 – while the figure for 1994 was only 3%.” This seems to be supported by anecdotal evidence that sees a rise in social movements and class action by various communities claiming socio-economic rights.
The report reveals that 53% of all South Africans define themselves as South African. Respectively, 80% of whites, 79% of Indians, 73% of Coloureds and 45% of African people defined themselves as South African. Perhaps not surprisingly, larger sections of younger age groups (16-34 years) use the identity ‘South African/African’, further illustrating the point that historical frames of references along ethnic lines are disappearing. In fact, six out of ten youth between 25 and 34 years describe themselves as South African compared to one in ten who describe themselves along ethnic lines and 3 per cent who define themselves in terms of race.
Language and nationality definitions remain strong among marginalised communities, confirming the conventional wisdom that meeting people’s basic needs and creating conditions for sustainable livelihoods contribute towards building socially cohesive communities. Poverty, lack of access to essential services and inequitable distribution of resources have been singled out as main causes of violence in many communities. The Macro Social Report concludes that improving service delivery and meeting people’s basic needs is critical to promote social cohesion. This does not reduce cohesion to an outcome of a mechanical process, but the principle that it is an outcome of organic processes and experiences of the people is retained. Universal access to social services, decline in poverty and improvements in the materials conditions are all necessary conditions for cohesion.
One indicator of cohesion is participation in community structures, elections, developmental and reconstruction programmes, organisations and other formal and informal structures that rely on voluntary participation. Cohesion in this context is largely positive, progressive and developmental. However, cohesion can be negative, particularly if it is induced by crisis or emergency situations. Despite perceptions that many young people are problematic, evidence shows that in fact cohesion exists and that youth, by and large, play a significant role in fostering cohesion induced by positive factors and thus resulting in positive outcomes. There is a clear rise of youth participation in sport clubs, churches, social clubs and other formal and non-formal organisations. Many people doing voluntary community care are young. Many of those involved in Letsema and Vuk’zenzele initiatives are youth. Many of those that crown halls and stadiums during Izimbizo are young people.
With respect to participation in politics, using elections as a simplistic barometer, the Macro Social Report found that while South Africans remain highly politically conscious, less than six in ten eligible youth (56%) participate in elections. More adults, women in particular, partake in elections. It is beyond the scope of this contribution to explore the reasons for the low participation of youth in elections. The point here is while the number of adults who participate in elections may exceed that of youth, mounting evidence demonstrates a sharp rise of youth participation in many other forms of organised life, such as sport, arts, religious and cultural clubs.
What role can the youth of 2006 play in fostering social cohesion? Young people in the first economy or the employed youth should use this June 16 period to support initiatives that increase social capital of those that are in the second economy. This can be done by, amongst others, sharing information on careers, bursaries, skills development and employment opportunities, opportunities for self-employment and mentorship. Benefits of this work far exceed the costs of proving it. I base this proposition on two assumptions. First, most youth in the first economy have access to information that others do not have. Often, emails circulating advertising jobs, bursaries and other developmental opportunities appear. There is a responsibility to share these with those in communities that lack email and internet facilities. Many people experiences difficulties in life because they lack information and guidance. The youth in the first economy can become positive role models and mentors to those who otherwise would make uninformed decisions. True to the saying that umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu, we can make others by identifying their needs and landing a hand using the means at our disposal. Giving an extra lesson to secondary school learners will go a long way in creating future engineers and marketers. Sharing career information with educators motivates them and learners alike. It improves confidence and pride in the system that we all care enough to contribute, even if it is just a piece of information we discover on the internet.
Second, there is government support for such work. Through programmes like the Big Brothers Big Sisters funded by Umsobomvu Youth Fund, government is creating spaces for employed youth to plough back into their communities. This encourages youth in the first economy to adopt children they can mentor and play a role as positive role models. Young people in poorly resourced communities need reassurance. Building cycles of support improves resilience against crime and other social behaviours that limit one’s chances of succeeding in life. There are many other examples of the positive role that those who are enjoying the fruits of freedom can play. The young people of 1976 played their role and so should we.
As for the unemployed youth, they too have a role to play. Participation in programmes like the National Youth Service presents an opportunity to gain skills and occupational experience whilst contributing to nation building. The National Youth Service engages youth in the delivery of community services such as housing, water, sanitation, home and community based care and probation service. Accredited training is provided to enhance the quality of services they deliver. The combination of this nation-building experience and accredited training enhances employability in the medium to long term. It is encouraging to observe that government has renewed its commitment to the National Youth Service through pronouncements in the Accelerated and Shared Growth Initiative for South Africa and elsewhere. In fact, during this Youth Month the National Youth Service is on top of the agenda.
Whatever we do on June 16, the youth of 2006 should be conscious of their role as agents of change – a change that should be enjoyed by all: black and white, young and old, rural and urban. Irrespective of our economic status, the celebration of June 16 should remind us of our historical role as young people to make selfless sacrifices towards building a free, non-racial, non-sexist and a prosperous South Africa. Advocating for socio-economic rights of those that remain marginalised is part of that historic role. Sharing information on developmental opportunities with those who do not have access is another. As noted earlier, cohesion thrives in conditions where people’s basic needs are met. It sustains itself where people share values, purpose and vision. This is where we should start: establishing a common consciousness, values, purpose and vision of the mandate bestowed upon us by history and current conditions to make a meaningful input in achieving a national goal of building a prosperous, caring and sharing society.
We should all take comfort in the fact that a strong foundation was laid by the youth of 1976 and millions of others who came before and after them. Thirty years on, the youth of 2006 are recommitting themselves, in various forms and capacities, to this course of building a united South Africa that cares for those unable to meet basic needs on their own. Indeed, the youth of this country can build a sustainable society!