OPINION: Will the black middle class use their advantage to lead?
The commemoration of this critical Youth Month is a useful opportunity to reflect on the role of the youth in bringing about social change. Social and revolutionary movements that have brought about massive societal changes in the world have done so largely through the participation and, at times, the leadership of the youth.
In South Africa, we can cite the role of the 1976 generation and the ANC Youth League in challenging the ills of apartheid colonialism. Universities in South Africa also have archives of the many generations that have contested the structural societal inequality that is symptomatic in institutions of higher learning. In the continent we have seen how young people in Egypt and Tunisia were involved in social uprising. We have also seen how young people led the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States. These are but a few examples in an overwhelming pool of evidence that show that the youth are a critical driver of social change.
Young people under the age of 25 constitute 40% of the world's population and would be the primary beneficiaries of an egalitarian society, or alternatively, the main victims of a crooked and hostile world. While there is a degree of exuberance and flamboyance associated with youthful days, the youth often stand between the prospect of a better future for their generation and the lessons, failures, fears and at times despondency of their predecessors. This unenviable position forces the youth to reflect on what their generational mandate is. And in the words of Frantz Fanon, they will either "fulfil it, or betray it".
Often when a generation decides to fulfil their mandate there is a heightened degree of confidence in their ways and what some may deem to be arrogance and miscalculation around their prospects of success.
This reminds me of a man who those of us who are Christian, Jewish or attended Sunday school may be aware of. This gentleman is David. He was a mere shepherd who stood before the prospects of a better future for his people juxtaposed against stories of how giant Goliath tormented seasoned men of war. David's devices and techniques were laughable to say the least, yet his confidence and determination was unparalleled. The long and short of it is that David, with a sling, defeated a giant and went on to become king of Israel.
This story reinforces for me that the youth requires a degree of history of how society got to be where it is. It is also reasonable to suggest that the youth needs to know what methods have been used in the past to bring about societal change. However, if the youth loses its courage and hope that the world, through their own action and decisions, can become a better place, they lose the opportunity to make society better.
In contrast to the youth, part of the problem with the older generation is that the memories of previous failures, the pain of unsuccessful attempts to defeat an oppressive system and the difficulties endured in fighting for change produce a paralysing fear. This makes it easier for them to compromise on issues of the day and, at times, what they may deem sizeable victories, the new generation may regard as little progress.
Nevertheless, for society to move forward, the youth cannot afford to bask in the nostalgia of the advancement of the previous generation. The youth must be angered by challenges of the day and actively decide on the role they are going to play.
As it stands, today's youth have a significant struggle to fight. Data suggests that 25% of young people live on less than one dollar a day, while 40% of the world's population lives on less than two dollars per day.
In our own country, youth unemployment is high. Black graduates are also in crisis, with the rate of unemployment high and some have had no option but to parade their degrees at traffic intersections in the search for a job. Some resort to putting their degrees aside and find employment as waiters, call centre agents, and petrol attendants. Available jobs are usually extremely exploitative and only cover transport costs and basic rentals. Further, many black people are also landless and as opposed to inheriting land and wealth from the previous generation, we inherit debt and responsibilities.
While there is a working democracy, history has taught us that real social change only begins when the middle-class youth become conscientised and brave enough to strive for a better future. But where is the black middle class in South Africa?
There seems to be a degree of contentment with the entrapments of debt and a false Instagram lifestyle. There is equally a degree of comfort with having to "bail out" their families from poverty and an occasional visit to home with a new loan on wheels. There is also an excitement with being the only black in a management structure at work; a feel-good incentive for being an exception to the norm, a 'special black person'. At times, this is to show off to their fellow village or township friends, but this expediently comes without sharing how many black colleagues they sold out in the process and their cooperation with an oppressive system to keep others out. As they say, there are not enough black people with those skills out there.
The young black middle class largely has the benefit of education, networks, access and credibility. They also have the benefit of having experienced structural inequality and the ills of a segregated society. However, it seems that there is amnesia that develops as soon as they can afford to buy a car, a pair of expensive shoes and an opportunity to eat out at a fancy restaurant.
There seems to be a relentless effort to selfishly enhance oneself at whatever the cost and turn a blind eye to all indicators that society requires not only their technical expertise, but also their activism and soberness in not only being the best they can be, but actively playing a role in challenging the ills of society.
While it is true that those who control wealth and resources will do everything in their power to protect it, it is also true oppressive systems survive through the instilling of fear and the control of societal perceptions. This is largely achieved through the domination of media and information outlets. However, part of what social media has achieved is to show to the oppressed people of the world an increasing number of examples where oppressive systems are challenged successfully and by consequence, have shown various models of achieving this.
The only envisioned danger to a better future for this country is the contentment with the shadows and residues of the previous regime and the desensitisation to social and political defects. The black middle class youth are best positioned to spearhead the new struggle for a better future. But like any generation, this will only happen if the strength of their courage supersedes the maturity of their fears.
Bafana Nhlapo is the founding chairperson of non-profit organisation Black Orange Kairos. He writes in his personal capacity.