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A disruption of the status quo

Standing before my audience of bright, young things, I asked them to stay true to their youth. I asked them to hold on to their youth when the workplace they entered may seem to demand they deflect to the wisdom of what passes for common sense these days. As an entreaty to young people goes, my message was a little disingenuous at the time. I had suddenly found myself rather disillusioned by journalism, the South African media, and life in general. So when I stood before that media studies class at Wits, I was perhaps addressing myself, just as much as I was addressing the fresh faces before me.

But during my lecture of the dynamics of the fabled South African workplace, the newsroom in particular, I implored the students around me to bring their own personality to the workplace. I sought to drive home one particular message that day: "Enter the newsroom (if you are lucky enough to find a job in this treacherous industry) as young people."

I asked them not to forego their youth, their own ideas and opinions, to fit someone else's view of the world.

Too often young South Africans enter a space such as the newsroom, where ideas, a sense of history and personal agenda are neatly packaged into the status quo. And in confrontation with the status quo, they, (we), forget to hold onto youth.

And it certainly isn't easy to be a young person right now.

Researchers tell us that as youth populations rise, job prospects, resources and the opportunity for social mobility fall, fostering social discontent, and then unrest.

Yet, young people who fight their way into a job forget that they do not have to mimic every idea and opinion that already exists in that space. Young people are supposed to challenge the world as we know it. Youth is supposed to be a disruption of the status quo.

But I know too that it is also the status quo that erodes youth. It is the status quo that eats away at the energy, vibrancy and ideas of young people as they struggle to secure their space.

I was myself struggling internally with issues of image, and perception. Having worked in a newsroom for close on to three years at the time, I was gradually becoming more aware of the myriad images of self and other we must manage in order to forge a career in the South African media. I was gradually becoming aware of how one particular image of how we perceive each other still dominates the dynamics of the workplace.

And against the unrelenting juggernaut of the status quo, through the intricately woven complexities of race, gender and class, I knew that I needed to be more true to my own beliefs.

And I knew I wasn't the only one.

I had seen talented, young journalists enter the fray, showing their talent, earning the plaudits, saying the right things, trying to fit an elusive mould of what we should be, only to burn out in a haze of disappointment, self doubt and tranquilisers a short while later.

So when I spoke to those students, I thought my good deed for the year would be to remind them that they are not obliged to adjust their own beliefs, their own ideas, their own sense of self to better fit a hostile paradigm.

I may well have burdened the attention space of an audience more accustomed to pockets of 140 characters flashing across a screen, but I went on.

"Don't be afraid to challenge the way your superiors see a story, the way they package the world for their audience."

But most of all, I asked them to be humble, to be ready to learn, to better serve a more nuanced understanding of the world.

I was surprised to discover that the students were receptive, buoyed even by the idea that revolutionising the media started with them. But then a question from a young woman took me aback.

She observed, astutely, that young people stand no chance of driving change in the newsroom, or any other workplace, without support from their older colleagues. Young people, she pointed out, stand no chance of challenging of the status quo, never mind of employment, if the rest of us continue to nod along enthusiastically to a status quo that preys on our sense of self.

She asked very pointedly if that change that I was advocating for, if the idea of writing like a young person, of offering young eyes to the world, did not begin with me.

I was silent for a few seconds as her words settled over me.

Of course it must start with those of us who insist, "a better world is possible". It must start with those of us, who, despite the job titles that come with years in the office, despite the guarantee of a career that comes with the maintenance of the status quo, still readily acknowledge that the status quo is not tenable.

And indeed, if we are serious about challenging the status quo, then the establishment must welcome the questions, the dissent, it must even welcome the folly of youth.

And this is as true in the media as it is politics.

The country's official opposition party is currently embroiled in a civil war. And while it might be the most entertaining thing in South African politics at the moment - as most things concerning Helen Zille are these days - it also provides a window into the struggles of young, black people in the South African workplace.

At the core of this controversy is Lindiwe Mazibuko, a young, black woman, at the forefront of one organisation's attempt to transform itself, to better represent the people of South Africa.

When Mazibuko rose to prominence in the DA, in 2011, becoming the party's Parliamentary leader, her youth drew both promise and ridicule.

For the DA, she was sold as a sign of the DA's appeal to young black South Africans.

For opponents within and outside the DA, her youth was held with scorn by those who reckoned she was out of her depth.

And yet, Mazibuko was for a long time, to the untrained eye at least, the darling of the DA.

Of course we now know that Mazibuko's meteoric rise within the party was sullied by internal politics, by a struggle for power in the party, and according to Helen Zille's account, at least, frequent mistakes that Zille had to rush repairs on.

To the public, however, the unravelling began when Mazibuko dared to stay true to her own beliefs when she voted in favour of the amendment to the Employment Equity Amendment Bill last year. As a flagrant disregard of the party line, her stated differences with Zille on the DA's position on the bill caused her leadership to be questioned. It became a debacle that "embarrassed" the party, marking it would seem, the beginning of the end of Mazibuko's prominence in the DA.

But the saga is also said to have left Mazibuko "emotionally drained", a feeling many young people forging their way through the South African workplace will know well.

Mazibuko's experience then echoes the experience of so many young, South Africans, particularly black South Africans. Her experience, and the unfolding controversy in the DA, is another installment in the ongoing battle between transformative spirit of youth against the Goliath of the status quo.

Khadija Patel is a writing fellow at the University of Witwatersrand's Institute for Social and Economic Research (Wiser). Follow her on Twitter @khadijapatel