Mandela Rhodes Scholars
Mandela Rhodes Scholars

Young white South Africans…where are you?

By Janet Jobson

I never imagined that one of the biggest challenges I would face this year would be how to get young white South Africans interested in joining a network of young leaders driving public innovation. It had simply never occurred to me that it would be difficult.

After all, my whole life I’ve been surrounded by amazing young white people. People who get involved, who take action, who have radical political ideas, who are running incredible social enterprises.

But I’m realising there is a dark side too. Even the most progressive and active young white South Africans often only get involved on our own terms (I count myself as equally guilty of this). We start projects in townships, we run NGOs, we head up student societies. We go on international exchanges, we take up high-profile global scholarships, we engage in all-night debates about race, class and gender. We declare ourselves to South Africa: “We are engaged! We are committed! We are making change happen!”

And there are many young white South Africans who are engaged, committed and bringing about change. But few of them seem interested in joining the Activate! Leadership for Public Innovation programme.

Activate! is a programme that supports a diverse network of young people to define a new purpose-driven post-apartheid identity, develop innovative solutions to SA’s toughest challenges, and link the poles of our society. Part of its premise is that we cannot overcome the historical steep gradient of inequality and division in SA unless we build deep human connections between young people from across social, racial, economic and geographic backgrounds.

Activate! is creating spaces where a young black woman from rural Limpopo who may not have finished high school, and a young white man doing his honours in genetics at UCT can connect on a human level. Where that young white man is not – simply by virtue of his education or race – automatically the expert. Where that young black woman is not – simply by virtue of race or geography – automatically considered in need of rescuing. This is not shallow rainbow nation stuff. It is walking the tough, painful, often frustrating journey to real connection. It is not a journey for the faint-hearted: young South Africans of all races are grappling with the reality of being wedged between a brutal history of colonial and apartheid oppression, and an uncertain future. But Activate! is a space where real collaboration to build a positive version of that future can happen because each individual is respected and honoured for their particular wisdom, capacities and insight.

There are almost no spaces in this country where we genuinely connect like this. At our universities we connect across race but hardly ever across class. Similarly in social groups, where inter-racial relationships form, they hardly ever cross the growing class and urban geography divides that so definitively characterise South Africa. When we work “in the community”, black people are our beneficiaries, our clients, our participants. But no matter how hard we try, no matter how genuine our desire for it to be different, the power differentials mean it is almost impossible for us to connect as equals.

The Activate! programme launched last year with more than 200 participants. Of these there were only three white Activators. This year another 600 young people will join the network, and at this point only five of those will be white.

We know that statistically young white people are more likely to be studying or employed full-time, and so it will take more effort to participate. Yet, these same people find the time to apply and participate in the traditionally “prestigious” social change activities: international conferences, heading up student societies or overseas internships. We also know that many black Activators are studying or employed full-time, so it cannot simply be that white people alone are too busy.

Is it possible – then – that a programme like Activate! will always been seen as a space only for those young people? That we are too educated, too important, too busy. That we don’t really think we need development.

There might be more charitable interpretations: perhaps young white South Africans don’t feel they belong. Maybe the programme needs to specifically target white people more effectively. Maybe it’s simply not attractively marketed.

But, for whatever reason, what if we are missing out on the most profound experience we might have as South Africans? What if making ourselves vulnerable would allow us to get real with our fellow young South Africans? What if this is what it takes to become fully human?

I lay this challenge down to young white South Africans: if you are serious about being part of this country, if you are serious about bringing about positive change; then apply to join Activate! The worst that can happen is that you are bored and drop out. But maybe you’ll discover a new way of being South African. And by becoming part of a network of extraordinary young South Africans, unlike any other that currently exists, we can redefine what is possible in this country. I am an Activator and I’m asking you to join me.

Janet Jobson, a 2006 Mandela Rhodes Scholar, has an honours degree in history from Rhodes University and a master’s in development studies from the University of Oxford. She currently works for the DG Murray Trust. She writes in her personal capacity.

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    • Jannie Kirsten

      I am a young, white, South African male looking to make a difference. How can I sign up?

    • bernpm

      Dear Janet… have a master’s in development studies from the University of Oxford.

      Many bright young SAffers have chosen this route instead of waiting in SA to be allowed in a University of their choice and the subject of their choice (skin problems). Many stayed in the UK or elsewhere outside SA to make a living, have a family and……….peace.

      We have 5 family members (4 under 35) in NZ, 8 in the UK, another 5 in Australia and 5 in Dominican Rep.
      Skills lost? education (incl special needs and management), accounting , actuarial, technical design, airplane mechanic, statistician.

      SA Matric has been downgraded outside SA, University degrees to follow???

    • Janet

      @Jannie – the link didn’t copy in the article. Check out to apply! Or send a mail to [email protected] for more.

      @Momma Cyndi – the thing is that this “pet project” is seeking to link all the different areas of action, and young activists, rather than being a single-issue focus/project. And interestingly I’ve had feedback from other programmes about a similar struggle to find young white participants.

      One of civil societies greatest weaknesses are the issue-based siloes that exist. Activate is not a single-issue space, but a place where, for example, Autism and Literacy are put on the agenda and tackled collaboratively. I would love to see young people from these organisations involved :)

    • Wiaan Visser

      Hi Janet

      How do I get involved?


    • Dave

      So if I dont join this programme, of hundreds available, then I am not serious? Never use emotional manipulation to gain support. The name is a disaster, sorry.

    • moodyzee

      Janet, you have been doing wonderful work with Activate, CONGRATULATIONS!
      I know having worked on youth campaigns and youth development programmes for over 7 years, that the “Young White South African” is indeed elusive. Whether you advertise @ schools, universities, FET Colleges, youth magazines (Like Seventeen, with a huge “Young White” readership) responses are almost NIL.

      Jannie Kirsten, I welcome your willingness to participate in a programme that will not only benefit you as an individual, but also the community in which you live. You will NOT regret your decision! The Creator – what ‘name’ are they embarassed about?

      Momma Cyndi – Your response makes no sense, is totally irrelevant and adds no value to this conversation. Janet Jobson works on Activate, a programme that supports a diverse network of young people to develop innovative solutions to SA’s toughest challenges”, why should she be concerned with “Autism” or any other initiative?

      She is NOT suggesting that any other “cause” is less important, she is merely pointing out the racial inequality in THIS programme, which is only problematic because it robs many young people, and their communities from opportunities to overcome challenges.

      Surely you (Momma Cyndi) cant tell me that out of almost 28mil SA Youth 100 “Young White South Africans” are not “available” for self-development? Or that there is not a fair share already working on Autism or the Rally to Read initiative?

      bernpm -…

    • Sally

      Janet, well done for being brave enough to ask tough, and often uncomfortable, questions.

      And well done to Jannie Kirsten in the comments for her response – we need more young white South Africans like that. Ones willing to get involved rather than those too busy thinking about all their excuses and defences to actually understand what your article is saying.

      You’re also incredibly insightful in your inclusion of yourself as one of those you criticise, something some of the commenters here seem to have skimmed over, unfortunately.

      Great piece!

    • whitemale

      Fantastic article Janet. There is a real nexus between lip service and real action. As you point out, your biggest hurdles are luring young whites out of their educational and professional comfort zones. Recognition that this is a tough task, which needs innovative marketing is an important recognition – hopefully this article will help!

    • Momma Cyndi


      Have you considered contacting other organisations about being part of the collective? I have never heard of ‘Activate’ and the two young people that I spoke to at the Autism Association haven’t either.

      I’m not sure that such a vastly broad based organisation can fully grasp the intricacies of the various specialty NGOs.

    • Momma Cyndi


      There isn’t 28 million white people in the country, let alone 28 million young white people.

      The article comes across as accusatory and plays on the idea that young white people just don’t give a damn and certainly don’t want to give anything back to their country (except on their own terms). As does your comment. That is not true. If this is to be a guilt trip thing where you have to do it or you are worthless then nobody is going to want to join. You join an organisation because you have a passion for what they are doing, not because Moody Zee says you must. Volunteering is a spare time commitment to a belief, not dragooned conscription

    • Alex O’Donoghue

      What a fascinating and well thought-out article.

      I really resonated with “perhaps young white South Africans don’t feel they belong”,

      “But no matter how hard we try, no matter how genuine our desire for it to be different, the power differentials mean it is almost impossible for us to connect as equals. ”

      “it cannot simply be that white people alone are too busy. ”

      I think the issues you have highlighted are extremely real and extremely sensitive and will trigger many reactions in all of us who read this. As a white South African, I have a deep and personal process with what it has to meant to me to cross the power and racial divides, so to speak. To feel worthy and equal regardless (and because of) my colour.

      Thank for the boldness of the article and the themes it contained. These difficult conversations are so important for us.

      p.s. I did one of the courses like you mentioned and it changed my whole world :)

    • JM Davis

      Janet, the fact that you use the word radical in order to describe people like you, those you wish would pitch in, is a dead giveaway – your organisation and its activities are a front for a certain kind of politics, and most white South Africans have enough savvy to realise that this is so; you’re transparent. This by the way is not the kind of politics that leads to economic success, development, jobs, effective education, or anything else that matters; instead this leads to dead-end societies like Cuba and Venezuela, places where I think most white South African would prefer not to go to, nor to take their fellow South Africans, whatever the colour.


    • Dave Harris

      Your vision however, of acting as an incubator to encourage young people to innovate does not make a whole lot of sense. As other commentators have pointed out, “Activate” sounds too geeky – more like a name for a tech startup 😉

      Then, why only young South Africans in their twenties? This deliberate age discrimination is an immediate turnoff to most intelligent young people.

      Then there’s the credibility issue. The DG Murray Trust that bankrolls your activities is an old school institution led by Dr. David Harrison, founder of an HIV prevention program called LoveLife, who says many South Africans viewed President Bush as a hero. So I’m sorry Janet, but how can you EVER hope to innovate with views like this?

      I think the real reason why most white South Africans ignore your initiative is because they see right through it!!!

    • Nosie

      Thank you Janet this really fascinating hope this will trigger some senses.

      @ Alex “perhaps young white South Africans don’t feel they belong” that maybe true however I have some reservations about it in a sense that when there is a talk about development we normal think about poor black community/underprivileged while we all need development.

      I am a second year PhD student in sciences @ Rhodes University and I don’t regret being part of activate leadership.

    • Alex O’Donoghue

      I think the variety of responses to this article are really interesting and some valid points are made. I do think, however, that the intention of the article is not to trigger anger nor does it come from a misguided or naive place.

      If you look at the sentence “there are almost no spaces in this country where we genuinely connect like this” and remove the call to specifically join Activate, and not get bogged down in politics around who is saying or doing what – then it begs the question:

      Where do we genuinely connect in our country on equal terms? Is it possible? And what is the intention behind Activate? I think the intention is good, and while intention and action are what triggers sustained change, active citizenry is something that is being really looked at nationally and globally.

      I would be interested to hear more thinking on the topic of taking individual ownership of change, regardless of sector/age/race and extract a learning conversation from this article.

    • moodyzee

      I’m so glad to see so many positive responses, because as Alex O’ Donoghue points out, “the article is not to trigger anger nor does it come from a misguided or naive place”.

      Momma Cyndi, you once again miss the point, and if you read my response correctly, I dont say that there are 28mil white SA or white youth.

      You right, volunterring is a commitment that requires time, and no I dont consider myself that important to expect people to act because ‘I said so’… But I do believe it is wonderful that the Active programme, and many other community based efforts are committed to building ‘agents of change’, in a country much needing social cohesion and repair.

      I think you need to read Janet’s article again, because you truly seem to have a very distorted view of the point she is making.

    • Janet

      Thank you to everyone for engaging! I really am more interested in the bigger conversation than just the Activate programme (although of course I would love more white people to sign up as a result of the conversation…)

      Thanks Alex for pointing to some of my bigger points. The article was really my own soul-searching – as I point out, I am as guilty of this and am just trying to figure it out :)

    • Concerned

      I would really like a program whereby those that receive handouts thank those who pay the taxes, and do something for others.

      And perhaps those who are unemployed can provide their idle time to provide public services, and perhaps gain some marketable skills at the same time).

      Those who pay the taxes work very hard for their income and savings and deserve respect and thanks – something those getting the handouts never appreciate.

      In South Africa there are strong cultures of entitlement and shifting guilt on those who have not done wrong. Both are immoral…

    • Janet

      @Concerned: I want to challenge some of your underlying assumptions.

      Firstly, every South African (including those receiving grants) pays tax. Let’s take VAT for example! When high inflation items (such as food, transport, and electricity) are the bulk of your spending you’re paying a much higher portion of your total money in tax than a wealthy income-tax payer. Grant recipients DO contribute back into the tax system.

      Secondly, many many young people are not sitting idly around. I could give you a thousand examples, but just one for now. In Cato Manor there is a group of 6 young men – 4 of whom are Activators – who wake up every morning and make breakfast for 200 orphans. They then run life orientation lessons during school, and sporting and leadership activities after school for around 2000 youth. They each earn a monthly stipend of just R500. They are one example of thousands of exceptional young people who are invisible to middle-class, usually white, South Africans. Just because you don’t “see” these young people, does not mean they don’t exist.

      Paying your tax should be a given, and pursuing your own wealth is your journey. It is not something that requires society’s thanks.

      Doing the work these young people do is heroic. So is raising a family on a state pension, or giving a child an education on the tiny child support grant, or raising an orphan through the foster care grant. These are not handouts, it is survival. My gratitude and thanks goes…

    • Momma Cyndi


      No. You miss my point. There are an awful lot of good young people out there making huge differences in the community. This is just one initiative of many. Being involved in THIS initiative is no more (or less) important than being involved in any of the other initiatives. There are only so many hours in a day.

    • Daryn

      Hi Janet

      Thanks for the article and asking those difficult questions. I am very involved in community projects giving of time and resources, and this sounds like a great project for those who wish to give a try. Why is it limited to white South Africans only ? also the mention of purpose-driven post-apartheid identity, does not resonate with me.

      Apartheid is long dead ! and BEEE is in and has been for years, however our governments and organisations use it all the time to insight guilt and place blame. We can never move past the issue if apartheid if the word is being thrown around all the time.

      Activate needs to bring the cultures together to face the problems of South Africa, and not just the young white South Africans, ALL young South Africans need to get involved and work together, so the racial divide can come to an end, and the youth can start working together so they will know how to work together in the future.

      One needs to focus on the outcome, so a better term may be, purpose-driven-equalitarianistic-identity, by focusing on the problem, we create more of the problem.

      Its the law of reverse affect.

    • Cara Meintjes

      Some experiences from my side… I’d love to proudly announce that I’m part of an initiative “not on my own terms” – a distinction that I had drawn subconsciously too and which hit home for me immediately when I read this. But to be honest I’ve been a bit of a wimp in it.

      Being involved “not on my own terms” is damn hard. Much harder to participate in something, as a member not a leader, where the leadership and dominant culture is quite different to what I was used to at home/school, university and work. It was quite emotionally exhausting, feeling uncomfortable with the way we do things and wanting to change it but not having the – let’s face it, the usual – clout with the leaders to just have my way. This year I have taken a step back because I work full-time now and didn’t want to give up too much of my weekends. And frankly cause it was often so frustrating.

      Something my fellow members challenged when I withdrew, is whether it has to be so “all or nothing” – can’t I attend sometimes, when I have time? Bearing in mind we’re a performing group that needs to be prepared when we get on stage!… this is a completely unimaginable arrangement to my white kid brain.

      So I’m glad you put this distinction – and challenge – in words Janet. White youth keen to do similar inter-class initiatives “not on your own terms”… go for it! Get ready for some stretching. Definitely a growing experience. Only advice I can offer is, learn to relax if you can :)

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