OPINION: An entitled youth or inconvenient truths?
'They are entitled, and only care about themselves.'
He took the mic and said something to that effect. They were words that many others before him have plainly stated. His speech then, was an echo. It repeated the idea that there are simple reasons why some people have problems: they are the problem, themselves.
His words ricocheted across the vast dining room, hitting the bodies in it in different ways and prompting various physical responses and discordant murmurs. Some actively bristled at the thought, others nodded their heads in agreement, or shook them in dissent, while more appeared restless, shifting in their seats, and uncomfortably wrestling with the words that had just been spoken.
We were at a gala event, among government dignitaries, youth from various backgrounds and organisations, and media representatives. Under discussion were the challenges facing the post-1976 youth as we tried to make some sense of what it means to be young, in this country, right now.
A country that, according to Statistics South Africa, is facing a youth unemployment crisis that has worsened, "since 2008, leaving more than 5 million people between the ages of 15 and 34 neither employed nor receiving education or training". A country in which Oxfam reports that, "the two richest people in South Africa have the same wealth as the bottom half of the population." A country where, like in many others, people with problems are often treated as problems.
He, a young person working on youth issues, had taken the mic to address the panel, and argued that the issue was two-fold. First, the problem is that youth are entitled, they want nice things and comfort without having to work hard for them, and secondly, they are narcissistic, simply too caught up in worrying only about themselves. A deceptively easy answer.
This kind of 'critique' is often levelled at the generation loosely, and perhaps also clumsily, defined as 'millennials' (in our country, the term frequently rhymes with 'born free') who are often treated as a nameless, faceless homogenous group who act similarly, face exactly the same set of challenges, and can be addressed as such.
The same kind of critique occurs when we address 'women's issues' or 'poor issues' or any other loosely-defined group through a lens that does not see or allow difference within a group, or see connections between multiple sites of struggle, or simply attempt to truly see the people addressed in all their complexity and challenged.
There is a predetermined narrative and script that is followed that blames people for the problems they face. These narratives and scripts do not need the relevant factual basis to be sustained, but become self-sustaining. They are sustained by the act of constant repetition. They are spoken into false fact-hood.
It allows myths such as 'teenage girls in townships are getting pregnant just because they want child support grants' to proliferate and operate as fact, even when they are revealed to be wrong. Or the idea that the youth in this country are entitled, lazy and narcissistic to be stated with extreme ease.
In The Souls of Black Folk, the philosopher WEB Du Bois wrote "how does it feel to be a problem?". He was remarking on the fact that oppressed people, in this instance black people, are not viewed as people who have problems, but as people who are inherently problems themselves.
As Lewis Gordon argues, "In cases of a problematic people, the result is straightforward: they cease to be people who might face, signify, or be associated with a set of problems. They become those problems. Thus, a problematic people do not signify crime, licentiousness, and other social pathologies; they, under such a view, are crime, licentiousness, and other social pathologies."
There is an often-quoted line from Frantz Fanon's The Wretched of the Earth that has become increasingly popular in our current context, particularly with the rise of student movements across our university campuses. He writes: "Each generation must discover its mission, fulfill it or betray it, in relative opacity."
While the focus is often on the first part of that quote, a generation discovering its mission, it is the latter, that relative opacity or obscurity that Fanon speaks of, that is just as fundamental.
There are numerous factors that will impact whether this mission will be fulfilled or betrayed, but what has become increasingly important is how predetermined narratives and ideas impact the reception, interpretation and ways of thinking about and of a generation trying to act in fidelity to the task, calling or objective they have identified.
There are ways of thinking about people and their actions within the generation in question that attempt to obscure, distract, misinterpret and discredit their actions and give rise to, complicate and embody the 'relative opacity' Fanon refers to.
This can be seen in some of the ways which student movements from Cape Town to Grahamstown, and Johannesburg to Stellenbosch have been viewed, with a kind of scepticism, distrust and disbelief that is laced with considering them the issue and not as people who face numerous issues.
The idea of an entitled, lazy and apathetic youth is shattered by the existence of these groups. However, for many this is an inconvenient truth - which is easily subsumed into opinions about erasing history, not focusing on 'the right issues' or using the wrong methods to get their point across.
Self-sustaining narrative about problematic people are too often not porous enough to allow other sets of facts or inconvenient truths to penetrate. They are often watertight and walled in against critique.
In many ways, what 'entitled youth' are asking for is what we are all entitled to, lives lived in ways that reflect our constitutionally-enshrined rights and citizenship that does not look so different for different kinds of people. When thinking about the challenges we face, as Lewis Gordon remarks, we have to find a way to study, address, and think of "problems faced by a people without collapsing them into the problems themselves".
_Danielle Bowler holds a master's degree from Rhodes University and is a Mandela Rhodes scholar. She likes to think critically about the world around her, which includes often making complex political arguments about pop culture and Beyonce. Follow her on Twitter: _ @daniellebowler
Images courtesy of Tarryn Hatchett.