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Are you hopeful about your country’s future?

This is one of the questions posed in a questionnaire answered by 12 000 young people (between the ages 14 and 25). The idea of the survey is to get a better sense of the issues young people face. If I had been part of the survey I would have answered “I don’t know”. It seems like a trick question given the challenges young people face in South Africa, Kenya, Tanzania, Ghana, Zimbabwe and Nigeria (the countries where the survey was conducted). When thinking about the country’s future, our personal futures are subsumed into the conversation.

I don’t know if I am hopeful about the future of South Africa, let alone the continent. I am bewildered when I think about the vulgar display of materialism among young people. I am worried about the warped idea of success that consumes the lives of many. The chasm between those who are privileged and educated and those who are not has created parallel worlds where climbing the slopes of success is more about who you know rather than who you are. Much has been written about the crass materialism and unbridled consumerism among young, up and coming professionals. But of course, it’s too easy to be pessimistic and wallow in angst when we think about the youth question.

If we focus on the question of hope and the future, we are left with fuzzy ideas about what it means to be in the world. We all contemplate our future to some extent and when we do so we hope we will be successful. We have a barometer for success and what it means to be a meaningful part of this world. What happens between now and the future perhaps? I have often quizzed my students about these questions when they tell me “what they want to be when they grow up”. I am often nonplussed when I hear their version of the future and what success looks like. It often looks like a lifestyle that does not question the pursuit of materialism (as opposed to the pursuit of happiness perhaps). It looks like the deification of American consumerism and it looks like a lifestyle that is unrealistic given what kids watch on reality TV shows.

Kids think that watching people shopping, fighting, gossiping and eating food is what life is about. Have you ever seen a reality TV show that follows the life of people who live simply, read, write and think? The version of success in a future life does not advocate young people to think or question their reality.

I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up. I’m mostly concerned about whether there will be a space in the world for me in the future. Another finding in the survey I’ve mentioned reveals that young South Africans who participated in the survey were worried about their personal safety and therefore pessimistic about the future. This is the darker side of happiness. If we are happy about South Africa’s future then we have to be equally aware of what the other side of the coin looks like. Afro-pessimists are everywhere, always threatening to leave South Africa for the promised land with milk and honey. The illusive promised land where safety and success are guaranteed. The level of violence I have witnessed not only on TV but in my personal life as well has often left me wondering about the promised land that is yet to be conquered. The new South Africa is definitely not the promised land. It’s easy to take for granted what it means to grow up in a violent society with a violent history of oppression and hatred because our concept of safety has less to do with non-violence but rather keeping out danger with alarms and electric fences. A better future becomes a cliché where we talk about safety but pardon violence because it is part of many homes and communities.

The questions posed by the survey — conducted by Every1Mobile — may appear insignificant but it’s helpful in giving a snapshot of what it means to be young in Africa. We are often told we are apathetic and lazy but never probed about why this may be the case. The life of a young person is far more complex than simply attributing the lack of education as the reason for the woes of the young. Perhaps the question lies in how we have been prepared to be in the world and whether we have the imagination for the future in spite of the challenges we face every day.