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What happens to an ambitious young South African?

International Youth Day, 12 August, is a day commemorating young people and bringing attention to the myriad issues they face, as well as highlighting the potential they have to transform society. Having considered this and Youth Day in South Africa on 16 June, I started asking myself what it means to be young and black and African and existing in a world without many prospects in terms of unemployment, the future and such.

Although I write here about my future aspirations for South Africa and about my personal journey and experiences, it should be highlighted that as — one fallen tree — cultural theorist Stuart Hall argues: “Identities are the names we give to the different ways we are positioned by and position ourselves in the narratives of the past.” Thus one cannot begin to talk or even think about the future without taking cognisance of the past, however pleasant or gloomy that past was. That is because, as author William Faulkner wrote:  “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” 

So, if South Africa wants to carve a brighter future for its young people, we need to deal with our atrocious past of racial discrimination, land dispossession, humiliation of the other and impoverishment of the masses among the many other crimes committed against humanity. I say that because, in the echo of the words of Dr Mamphela Ramphele, “South Africa is wounded and unhealed”, I want to partake and be actively involved in the healing process and the mending of wounds and scars — be they physical, emotional or psychological. We also need to deal with the present rampant corruption and greed that eventually kills the masses and stunts our country’s growth.

I grew up in abject poverty and squalor— the only way out of those nervous conditions was through education (or so I was told and made to believe). The message that education would help me and those around me to fight off man-made, impoverished conditions was something that my late mother and teachers alike drilled into me from a young age. 

Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” These  words, uttered by one of the world’s most renowned presidents — Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela — was something that echoed in my ears.  

I drank the Kool-Aid.  I am, and have always been, passionate about education, boasting three degrees from two of the top institutions in the world: the University of Cape Town and the University of Oxford.

Yet, somehow, that is not enough.

My dreams — and life — fell apart after graduating from the University of Oxford in 2016. I remained unemployed for a good year and a half. I had an undergraduate degree from UCT with ten class medals and was on the Dean’s List for three years in a row. I had a litany of fellowships and scholarships, I had leadership roles (secretary of student parliament, member of senate, treasurer and outreach officer for Rainbow UCT were some) and I volunteered. I had done all that I needed to do and received the key to success — yet I was not getting any doors open. The employment offers I received were a pittance in terms of remuneration. I was being offered an exploitative wage which was hard to compute considering my experience and qualifications. 

Although, because of my experiences with poverty and unemployment in this country, I tend to be despondent and pessimistic. I, like activist Angela Davis, believe that, “You have to act as if it were possible to radically transform the world. And you have to do it all the time.” 

I honestly think it’s important to believe that you deserve a good life for yourself. It’s necessary to believe that your wildest dreams can come true and that you are capable of changing the world for the better, for yourself and other marginalised bodies — otherwise we are just wasting time. We can all just sign off from life if we don’t have hope that a better world is possible.

I aspire to live in a world — specifically a South Africa — where I am judged on my character and capability and not my race, gender or sexuality. I want to exist in a space that allows me to dream and strive to achieve all those dreams regardless of who I know — a country where nepotism, corruption and cronyism are not necessary for one to succeed. I want to be in a world where my hard work and excellence is rewarded. I want to be in a country where my education and academic qualifications carry weight and mean something. Currently I am made to feel as though my education is useless without politically connected parents or relatives. 

I have experienced the worst of this country, even with my erudite being, so what about my uneducated brothers and sisters? 

South Africa is a crime scene that is eating its young. This Youth Day there was nothing to celebrate. Many educated young people are facing debilitating unemployment and poverty.

According to StatsSA: “The official unemployment rate among youth (15-34 years) was 46.3% in Quarter 1 of this year. The rate was 9.3% among university graduates.” Youth unemployment under the expanded definition is a staggering 74.7%, which means that seven in 10 young people (who are willing and capable) are unemployed. Just this week, it was revealed that South Africa has the highest unemployment rate of 82 countries monitored by Bloomberg.  

These numbers are shocking. But in fact, these are not just numbers, they are people’s lives. It is an indictment on our current government which is incompetent and busy stealing from the poor during a global pandemic. Broken young people have to be led by a selfish and greedy elite who only care about enriching themselves and their friends and families. Shame on them! 

I was once one of those numbers. I know how depressing and helpless it feels to be at rock bottom where you have no options nor any help. 

I shudder to think what will become of us should this country continue on this current trajectory. It seems as though we are on a steady and unrelenting decline. We will not have a South Africa to speak of that the youth can celebrate in. A lucky few will be part of the diaspora and narrate the downfall and crumbling of this very beautiful country from afar.

No one said it better than Langston Hughes in his poem Harlem:

What happens to a dream deferred
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore —
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over —
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

Although South Africa’s history is that of pain and suffering and today’s reality is poverty for a majority, I believe that a brighter tomorrow is possible, but we have to fight for it. The future is in our hands as young people. We must be united in rooting out corruption and incompetence in our midst.           

Author

  • Paballo Chauke has a Bachelor of Social Sciences and an Honours in Environmental Geographical Science from the University of Cape Town as well as a Master’s in Biodiversity Conservation and Management from Oxford University. He has multi-trans-inter-disciplinary interests and currently works as a training co-ordinator. He also runs his own podcast Conversations with Chauke.