Against the youth fetish in politics

Politics is about effectiveness, and casting youth as a political subject (rather than simply a demographic), is a bad way to do politics.

Mass meeting on Jammie Plaza, University of Cape Town 2015. Image credit Tony Carr via Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0.

Youth is in revolt, but this is only the eternal revolt of youth; every generation espouses “good causes,” only to forget them when “the young man begins the serious business of production and is given concrete and real social aims.” After the social scientists come the journalists with their verbal inflation. The revolt is contained by overexposure: we are given it to contemplate so that we shall forget to participate. In the spectacle, a revolution becomes a social aberration—in other words, a social safety valve—which has its part to play in the smooth working of the system.

– Members of the Situationist International and some students at the University of Strasbourg, On The Poverty of Student Life, 1966.

In South Africa, June is officially celebrated as Youth Month given that on its 16th day, the Soweto Uprising is commemorated (the day in 1976 when black students in the township protested the imposition of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction and against the Bantu Education system and, in response, the apartheid government killed 176 of them).

As is the fate of most holidays intended to mark sober occasions, Youth Day has since become a generic platform for long-winded platitudes and paeans to the youth, mostly from political and business elites eager to make new voters or consumers from the demographic. This year was no different. South African president, Cyril Ramaphosa, delivered an address imploring that “We must invest in their [the youth’s] development, and support their efforts to define a new future for our country.” Ramaphosa’s political home—the African National Congress—was arguably the modern trailblazer of youth politics in South Africa, when the likes of Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo and Anton Lembede founded its youth league in the 1940s. Since then, the “Young Lions” have had little to be proud about. All of the ANC Youth League’s last four leaders—Collin Maine, Julius Malema, Fikile Mbalula and Malusi Gigaba—aided ex-president Jacob Zuma’s rise within the party by supplying him with a reliable base of support (in exchange for inclusion within the mass patronage network he perfected). Nowadays, the league’s biggest problem is that many of its members are not, in fact, youth. What does youth even mean to a party where youths are often in their forties?

This, of course, is a political syndrome not unique to South Africa, nor to our historical moment.  Everywhere, it is an article of faith that young people are predisposed toward radical politics, destined to be the stewards of social transformation at any given age. And everywhere, the youth tend to disappoint when they come of age. How this entrenched assumption in politics came to be, would require an intellectual history beyond our scope here. Suffice it to say, that the usual story attributes this inheritance to the legacy of May 1968, when campus radicals were at the forefront of the social upheavals that gripped France and reverberated across the world, from Brazil to Mexico, Morocco, and Senegal. From that point, young people cemented their central place in politics, no longer subordinate to the hold of traditional authorities such as the family and state. And since then, every new uprising is reflected through the prism of post-war tumult, and a hope that another 1968 moment is on the horizon.

South Africa also traces its spirit of youth radicalism to the historical process inaugurated in 1968-1969, what the political scientist Mahmood Mamdani calls “the South African moment,” expressed through the twin development of Black Consciousness and student-driven union politics, and proving to be “the epistemological revolution that would spur decolonization.” Of course, 1976 is held in the collective imagination as the pivotal episode that inspired the youth-led mobilizations that followed in the 1970s. And in post-apartheid South Africa, #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall are assigned a similar significance in re-ordering the political landscape. In many summations, the mid-2010s student movement constituted the most important challenge to the post-apartheid political consensus, especially as an advance in political consciousness in the same way that Black Consciousness is regarded, and from which Fallism drew the bulk of it its major inspiration.

The specter of change evoked by Fallism has since faded. Looking around, what one sees is not a groundswell of young South Africans participating in politics, but widespread disaffection. Whatever our hopes for the Fallist generation, they have since scattered and fragmented, leaving little institutional legacy behind. Some of its leading figures are pursuing political careers within South Africa’s mainstream parties, others have settled for stable jobs on main street, while only a minority have joined the NGO-union-social movement nexus, which constitutes something of a Left. This mirrors a dynamic evident in the student movements of the 1970s. In one of the more notable examples, Mamphele Ramphele, a prominent Black Consciousness Movement (BCM) activist,  became a business leader (at her peak, becoming a managing director of the World Bank), and when she returned to politics, did so by forming an under-performing, liberal-governance political party (eventually, Ramphele came close to joining South Africa’s centre-right opposition, the Democratic Alliance, a party unashamedly allied with capital and in favor of the wholesale privatization of public services.) Many others of this generation are languishing in the fate of most young people in this country—joblessness and indigence. (At present, unemployment is 63.9% for those aged 15–24 and 42.1% for those aged 25–34. Of those brackets, 32.6 % and 22.4 % are graduates).

The point here is not to pathologize and accuse young people of betraying a generational mission, of being prone to “sell out.” Rather, it’s to say that for all our hopes that the young will deliver us from evil and despair, we ignore the intractable fact that someday, they too will grow older. Insert here, that over-quoted line about lacking a heart if you’re not a lefty at 20 and lacking a head if you’re not conservative at 40, or however it goes. No doubt, whenever that saying comes up it’s to insist on the folly and supposed non-viability of left-wing ideas. As an aside, the white old guard of the DA pushed out most of its young, black hopefuls in this spirit, given that they campaigned for responsive economic policies, such as urban rent control, which is seen as too far for the party’s market-fundamentalist orthodoxies. But, the sentiment also reflects the core truth of the contemporary situation, which is the dull, economic compulsion of capitalist life. Put another way, past the institutionalized shelter of young adulthood—preoccupied, in the standard story, with chasing a degree—comes the expectation to present oneself to the job market and make a living. Life goes on.

Still, this is not so for the majority of young South Africans. Few have the chance to attend institutions of higher learning (less than 10% of black South Africans between the ages of 18 and 29 are enrolled in institutions of higher learning), and to spend time jostling with ideas (and are especially excluded from graduate education). The idea that young people are the future, reflects the standpoint of the upwardly mobile, of those with something to look forward to (at least, as having expectations of this).

What is often forgotten is that the Fallist generation are first-class beneficiaries of the ANC’s post-apartheid class project. One area where the ANC succeeded was enabling access of black students to elite public universities in South Africa, which is why it was them who really spooked ANC rule. What they openly challenged was the post-apartheid arrangement: that while the black middle class now equals the white population in actual numbers, very little has changed as far as whites remain the face of the ruling economic class, and the poor, with little exception, comprises much of black South Africa. The question provoked was: how come this country remains not in our image? Indeed, Fallism was not functionally revolutionary in its ambition—it did not really seek to overturn the post-apartheid order root and branch. Instead, it was for a share in the promised democracy, for the belated promise of socio-economic inclusion to be fulfilled. But, what it confronted was a historical juncture where the available economic pie was shrinking. For a while now, capitalism has been stagnant and unable to deliver economic growth with a rise in living standards. The system is beyond inclusion.

Before the tumults of 68, the Romanian-French Situationist, Isidore Isou, began his call to arms, Youth Uprising, with a warning: “From the extreme Right to the extreme Left, all parties boast of representing the young or fighting for their future!” South Africa’s political elites and its elected representatives—from the venal ANC to the reactionary DA, and the moribund Economic Freedom Fighters, all claim the allegiance of young South Africans. This is not mirrored in the polls, with one of the main headlines of last year’s local government elections being the large absence of youth voters (less than 20% of the population aged 20–35 registered to vote). From this, it should be clear that the political establishment hardly registers with the majority of young South Africans. But that’s because these South Africans are hardly legible to the political establishment. Once again, when we speak of “young people,” we never do so neutrally. The images we conjure up—whether of a political firebrand ready to campaign for change, or of an entrepreneurial go-getter—all implicitly reinforce the ideology of meritocracy.

We envision not just any young person, but “young” does the adjectival work to create the image of a person who is hard-working, productive, and capable (alas, not all of us can be Mail & Guardian Top 200 Young South Africans). As Julius Malema, (the founder of the EFF in 2013 after his expulsion from the ANC Youth League) put it in his 2022 Youth Day address: “The Youth…are not a charity case, we were never a charity case, we are not asking for handouts, we want to work the land ourselves, we want to work the mines ourselves, we want to own the banks ourselves.” So then, the crisis of youth becomes simply that they are being deprived of opportunities they deserve, and the quibble is reduced to “why?” (the ‘left’ say whites are hoarding all the opportunities, the right say excessive state interference is suffocating young people’s industriousness). The flip side of this is the subtle contempt for all seen as outside the category of the talented, which translates to contempt for the vast majority. Malema, again: “Stop surrendering to drugs, to alcohol.” Last year, Malema was all about the idea of a “new black,” with calls on the youth to be a “generation of responsible black people.” All statements sound as though they were lifted from Bill Cosby’s infamous Pound Cake speech.

South African politics across the spectrum, effectively accepts as a virtue some version of elite-led social progress, including those seeking to “shake up” the landscape. It’s no surprise that Songezo Zibi (mostly known for once being the editor of South Africa’s leading business daily, Business Day), for example, has announced his ambitions for seeking office on a platform that would draw on the “skills, education and drive of [the] professional class.” For one thing, Zibi’s reflects a tired trope in South African politics—where habitual references to the nameless “masses” are just a sop—the real belief is that it is the ascent of a credentialed youth that will usher in change to the country (vanguardism, after all, is this country’s oldest political tradition).

As it stands, this class is down and out, on the bleak path of proletarianization that afflicts professionals everywhere. That even a middle-class existence is precarious, with households a missing paycheck away from financial catastrophe, is not simply the outcome of a peculiar moment in our history characterized by poor leadership and incompetent governance. A captivating political agenda in South Africa must make the connection between the general malaise and the nature of capitalism. No matter the level of efficiency, so long as economic power is concentrated in the hands of the investor class, all it will do is continue to aid their accumulation and prosperity. It is designed to redistribute wealth upwards, and for the rest of us to lose out.

The alternative to this is not more effort scratching our heads together and figuring out how to make a broken system work. In the post-pandemic era, while the rest of the world is embracing what the author Paolo Gerbaudo describes as a “neo-statism that calls for stronger state intervention in the economy in order to protect society” (and as recent elections in Colombia, Chile, Honduras, as well as in France underscore), South Africa remains invested in socio-political frameworks that are fundamentally anti-statist and which imbue the private sector with the starring role in driving development. Of course, the ANC’s mass patronage system has undercut any capacity for the state to deliver. But the answer is not rolling back the state. To wit: “It is a tragic irony that combating the phenomenon of corruption (effectively, the privatization of politics) leads to greater privatization.” Undue faith in private enterprise to drive economic dynamism and create jobs belies historical ignorance. At no point in history has society taken a substantial leap forward in the quality of life without the state playing a central role to constrain the tyranny of the market and its oversized role in governing our lives.

The conceptions of the good life pervasive among young South Africans accept this basic premise. Supposedly, an economy that works is an economy that gives everyone an equal opportunity to succeed and get rich. Freedom remains somewhat the animating ideal of South Africa’s political imagination, but it’s an idea of freedom that grows narrower and narrower, and burdens individuals with the responsibility of actualizing it on their own. In fact, what’s more the case is that this ideal is receding further and further from the collective unconscious, replaced by an ethic of bare survivalism. An idea of the good life is evaporating, most are resigned to what comes their way. We must fight for a different imaginary, one that locates the moment of freedom in socialized provision, a world that gives everyone the material resources to be able to truly determine what to do with their own lives, relieving us of the pressure to brutally compete for them. A program rooted in this vision would include universal basic income, the expansion of public transport, decommodifying healthcare, affordable housing (and rent control), democratizing basic education, plus marrying job creation and decarbonization through our own green new deal.

Besides being barely able to support themselves, young South Africans lament the obligation that befalls them to support their extended families—the so-called “black tax,” in local parlance. It is, on the one hand, perfectly rational that many would resent being responsible for the well-being of relatives, and perceive it as a hindrance to their own aspirations; it merely projects the spirit of self-interest that rules the modern subject. On the other hand, the complaint has some validity on its own: there is something deeply absurd about a world where the power over life and death appears to rest with individuals, no less exercised intimately over one’s kin. We must take this instinct to its natural conclusion, and realize, as the twentieth-century Christian socialist thinker R.H Tawney did in Equality, that:

It is not till it is discovered that high individual incomes will not purchase the mass of mankind immunity from cholera, typhus, and ignorance, still less secure them the positive advantages of educational opportunity and economic security, that slowly and reluctantly, amid prophecies of moral degeneration and economic disaster, society begins to make collective provision for needs which no ordinary individual, even if he works overtime all his life, can provide himself.

However,  this world will only come by reigning in the power of capital and subjecting it to the common good. This requires a big fight, one that repolarizes society across class lines. And, in the words of French philosopher Jean-Claude Michéa, “In this era of youth culture, it is fitting to recall one basic detail: youth has never been a class. It is a moment of life, transformed into a market.” At least since the 20th century, youth has been a commodity, a signifier of vigor and vibrancy, and, as Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm notes, “… seen not as a preparatory stage of adulthood but, in some sense, as the final stage of full human development.”  In our burnout society, no one seems convinced by this anymore – youth is an ideal that is inaccessible even to the mathematically young. There is no comfort in consumption (who can afford it anyway), no beauty in being young, only fatigue and restlessness.

In South Africa, one wonders how the idea of youth with its promises of professional mobility ever took hold, considering that the persistence of structural unemployment always made it an impossibility for the majority. We have been misled by a kind of post-professional class affect—the longing for ours to experience a comparable degree of social leadership and relevance as elsewhere (particularly in the West). But we are living through the crisis of this stratum, not its ascent.

As emphasized in a pamphlet distributed to 10,000 students by the Situationist International at the University of Strasbourg in 1966, “In reality, if there is a problem of youth in modern capitalism it is part of the total crisis of that society. It is just that youth feels the crisis most acutely.”  The total crisis of society now acutely afflicts all. We must push against the notion of young people as a political constituency, which essentializes and naturalizes their propensity to lead and revolt. It is specific historical conditions that give rise to this, rather than something innate about youthfulness. So, youth revolt comes in cycles throughout the ages, and these cycles become briefer and briefer just as the times become harder and harder.

The titular character in Bertolt Brecht’s Life of Galileo famously quips that “Unhappy is the land that needs heroes.” We could similarly say, unhappy is the society that needs its youth to revolt, to be its “changemakers” or “thought leaders.”  Young South Africans, to be sure, have played a decidedly positive role in shaping South Africa’s political future. But, it is a sign of our social and political disorder that they should have to in the first place. Ultimately, I am indifferent to the role of youth in politics, whether their significance is earned or unearned. Politics is about effectiveness, and casting youth as a political subject (rather than what they are, which is simply a demographic), is a bad way to do politics. It shouldn’t matter much—a good political program must be able to appeal to the greatest majority of people possible.

The irony is that, it is in those moments of history when the youth go beyond themselves—resisting the pressure to craft a special role to play in the march of history—that young people are the most effective actors. What distinguishes the South African moment in the 1970s and the Fallist moment in the mid-2010s is how successful each was at this. The former, was able to forge the elusive bond between students and workers, whereas the latter (not for a lack of trying, at various points), was unable to take its politics past the campus gates and to the wider populace.

Young people are going to be essential to any transformative political movement in this country. But, it has to be a movement that gives the mass of ordinary young people real avenues for political participation, ones not based on them already being enlightened insiders. Still, we’ve got our logic upside-down. Rather than fantasizing about the potential for young people to change this country, we have to change this country for young people, with young people. A good society, with robust safety-nets for everyone, would finally give them the chance to taste the thrill of being young.

Further Reading

Everything must fall

Fees Must Fall (#FMF) brought student activism at South Africa’s elite universities into the global media spotlight. A new documentary zooms in on the case of Wits in Johannesburg.