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Wednesday, 13 June, 2001, 12:07 GMT 13:07 UK
Young people 25 years after Soweto
Human rights activist Mothobe Mokhethi
Mothobi Mokhethi says young people have no voice
By Philippa Garson

Twenty-five years after the Soweto uprisings of 16 June 1976, South Africa's youth could not be more different from those who brought the country to a standstill when they rose up against the inferior education imposed by the apartheid government.


It's all about the clothes, about how I look. How much cash do I have? How far can I get? Not, what can I do for someone else

18-year-old Maphiri Malebe
"Youth are not interested in politics today," says 16-year-old Nobunye Levin.

"They're only interested in themselves. Maybe they've lost hope in the country. Things have not really changed for the better and they don't have patience to wait."

There was far more idealism at the time of the Soweto uprisings, which turned international opinion against the Afrikaner nationalist government.

Many young people streamed out of the country to join the military wing of the then-banned African National Congress. Others devoted their lives to fighting apartheid at home.

Teenage preoccupations with clothes, music and having fun were luxuries they could not afford.

Materialism

These days, exulting the youth with that age-old liberation mantra, "Roar, young lions roar", will provoke looks of disgust from teenagers who are simply not interested in politics.

Teenagers Maphiri Malebe (left) and Nobunye Levin
Soweto teenagers are more interested in clothes and music than politics
Less than half the country's 18-20-year-olds bothered to register for the last general election in 1999.

Today's youth are "very materialistic", says 18-year-old Maphiri Malebe.

"It's all about the clothes, about how I look. How much cash do I have? How far can I get? Not, what can I do for someone else?"

But in their preoccupations with designer labels and music stars, South Africa's young are no different to other teenagers around the world.

Whether this suggests that South Africa has at last become a normal, or at least more stable, society is another matter.

The realities of mass unemployment, soaring levels of Aids and crime are not the realities of a stable society.

Disillusion

There is deep disillusionment among youth, says Levin, that democracy has not brought with it the promised changes.


Now poverty and unemployment are worse than ever

16-year-old Nobunye Levin
"On a small scale black people are being empowered. But people were promised houses and jobs. Now poverty and unemployment are worse than ever."

Adds Levin: "We've also lost hope in the leaders. Look at all the scandals that keep happening. There are no good role models anymore. The best was Nelson Mandela. Since then there has been so much corruption. Why should we aspire to be them?"

Why then are the youth not mobilising to change things, to become activists against Aids and political corruption?

The National Youth Commission and other youth organisations have largely failed to motivate or chart a coherant path forward for them.

Marginalised

Mothobi Mokhethi, a 27-year-old human rights activist for Rights Africa, believes the political apathy of the youth is not surprising because "they have been marginalised".

Famous Soweto photo taken by Sam Nzima
Slain Hector Peterson became a symbol of the Soweto Uprisings
Political credentials from the days of the liberation struggle still count for everything, even though many young people were not even born then, he believes.

"But after the time of Mandela and Mbeki who will be the leaders? The role of youth is not seen as meaningful. They have no voice."

The battle against Aids poses particular challenges. Lungi Morrison, a media researcher at loveLife, which directs its Aids awareness campaigns at youth, says they are not going to "unite and mobilise against something they can't even see".

Unlike apartheid, the new enemy is invisible.

"The challenge is to build the self-esteem of our youth, raise their level of consciousness and give them a sense of hope for the future so that they make the right choices," says Morrison.

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See also:

08 May 01 | From Our Own Correspondent
Cracks in South Africa's democracy
12 Jun 01 | Business
Investing in South Africa
21 Feb 01 | Africa
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