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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.