“It would make an am-a-zing scarecrow, don’t you think?” asks a friend. Save the dull narrative of South Africa’s miracle, another chestnut has crept into South Africa’s discourse. This time around, there’s no Shosholoza humming or rainbows. “Young, angry and black” and its variants has become a phrase dished out with little thought. It passes as analysis for what is happening in South Africa. Last year alone, 9 million young people aged between 15 and 34 were unemployed and looking for work in South Africa.
South African media often reports protests with a tinge of ignorance and contempt. The cause of the people involved is often underreported instead, middle-class South Africans are given the soapbox to moan about how their lives have been interrupted by the other — the protestor. Have a quick look at reports on protests and the same narrative is rehashed: the faces of the protestors are young and black. They’re unemployed, angry and idle. It is true that in South Africa, young people in their majority are economically disenfranchised. What is less true is that as a consequence of this — almost mechanically — these young people become a threat to their own.
Last week, I stood in a packed room at Cape Town’s indie bookshop — the Book Lounge. Wannabe politician and former black consciousness activist Mamphela Ramphele was launching her autobiography A Passion for Freedom. As book launches go, few people ever ask interesting questions. After the dull questions were asked Mamphela shared an anecdote.
“I was in Rustenburg this past weekend. One of Malema’s supporters took off his beret and greeted me with respect. This proves to me that these young people need acknowledgement. The young man was really decent to me.” As Ramphele narrates, the young man is from a small, forgotten community in Rustenburg. He is unemployed, young and black.
The Economic Freedom Fighters is South Africa’s newest democratic-left ensemble lead by Julius Malema. It is one such group that attracts the “young, black and angry” tag. Caught in South Africa’s economic haze, the EFF has seven cardinal principles that advocate for “radical change”. The face of the EFF is young-ish and black. Their redistribute now missive has earned them both lazy and valid criticism. Their tone is perceived as “dangerous” and “irrational”. For Ramphele, the red-beret clad young man in Rustenburg should have been less respectable towards her. He is young, angry and black. Consequently, he poses no agency and is driven by impulse and anger. That makes him dangerous. He is a threat.
This threat discourse is not new. Strategic demography is used to analyse the role of population pressure on national stability. This is done with the idea of mitigating risks; countries plan extensively and the desired result is stability.
In South Africa, the threat discourse has more obvious roots. In the old order, the politics of fear was expressed through quick chestnuts too. Imagined threats were thought up to make sense of false adversaries. Think swart gevaar (black danger) — used by Verwoerd and his ilk. The swart gevaar anxiety sprung far beyond the fear that black people would take over the country. It was the imagined fear of the ferocious native — unable to control his “irrational anger” and impulses.
When used indiscreetly, tropes become paralysing and breed alarmism. But tropes also work as deflectors when you need them to.
Enter Lindiwe Sisulu, former South African defence minister (currently public administration minister). In 2010, she proposed a National Youth Service. In her words: “A solution to the huge glut of unemployed, disempowered and unskilled youth.” When concerns were raised about the efficacy of the programme and the militarisation of young people, Sisulu responded: “A greater danger is posed by people who have no purpose or discipline.” Sisulu went on to cite South Africa’s frequent service-delivery protests and the “excessive anger shown” by the youth involved in the protests.
No one can dare deny that the impasse South Africa’s young people face is real. If the pressures of the youth bulge are to be mitigated, it might help to start with how young people are portrayed. Tropes, like “young, angry and black” make for good headlines, but sadly, they downplay the lived realities of many young South Africans. It is no coincidence then that Sisulu and her ilk can conjure up schemes like the National Youth Service and the half-baked Youth Wage Subsidy. They’re driven by anxiety.
It is a fear that typifies “young, angry and black” as a faceless and uncontrollable mass, predestined to produce instability. In a country that oscillates between the haze of rainbow nation-ism and the reality of the economic exclusion — “young, angry and black” is a good scarecrow.