We should take a close look at how members of the youth choose to express political activism. Online opinion blogs represent one of many spaces that we should be watching because they offer a place where the youth can engage with political arguments, share their own reactions and collaborate in order to co-create forms of knowledge that enable them to address the myriad of problems they face, writes Marthinus Conradie.

Youth participation in democratic political processes has witnessed curious fluctuations over the last two decades, provoking both alarm and praise, depending on the perspective from which you interpret these developments. On the alarmist side, claims have been made that these fluctuations describe a downward trajectory. Put differently, grave concerns have been expressed over the prospect that many (possibly most) members of the youth are withdrawing from democratic political participation and even feel disgruntled with democratic procedures.

However, this assertion depends primarily upon measures such as voter-turnout among the youth, formal membership in political organisations and consumption of mainstream news. I am not suggesting that these indicators are irrelevant for understanding youth’s relationship with politics, but there is a risk in relying exclusively on them. We risk overlooking other means and platforms where members of the youth are, indeed, politically active, even if these alternative projects go unacknowledged.

We should take a close look at how members of the youth choose to express political activism. This might prove vital in terms of how we respond to the two broad accusations that South African youth regularly encounter. One, they are sometimes denigrated as politically apathetic and uninformed. Two, they are described as overzealous and, consequently, as destructive hooligans, focused on torching public buildings and upending trash cans. There are reasons to believe that both accusations carry a kernel of truth; however, if we are to take these accusations seriously, we need to learn as much as possible about what South African youth are in fact doing.

Online opinion blogs represent one of many spaces that, I suggest, we should be watching. While they might not share the audio-visual appeal of YouTube, or the speedy interactions of Twitter, opinion blogs are – potentially – crucial to advancing the democratisation of South Africa. For one thing, they offer a place where South Africans, including the youth, can engage with political arguments, deconstruct ideologies, share their own reactions and, perhaps most importantly, collaborate in order to co-create forms of knowledge that enable them to address the myriad of problems currently besetting the youth. The comparatively slower pace of opinion blogs might well be important for cultivating careful thinking.

If any of these ideas about youth activism sound vaguely familiar to you, it might be because you have encountered similar views under the auspices of a concept referred to as active citizenship. In the rest of this piece, I want to briefly describe a potential pitfall of active citizenship, before highlighting one way in which South African youth are attempting to avoid this limitation by exploiting online opinion blogs as a site for political activism.

Let’s start with active citizenship. Buire and Staeheli in their paper “Contesting the “active” in active citizenship” offer a very good rundown of overall trends in the way active citizenship is being packaged and communicated to South African citizens, especially to the youth. In a nutshell, youth are envisioned as the bearers of the country’s future. No surprises there. But active citizenship suggests that, precisely because of this perception, the youth must be educated to commit themselves to the greater good of the nation. That might sound fair, but this broad goal is typically subdivided into aims such as the following:

1) teach the youth to prioritise individual financial independence by focusing on entrepreneurship,

2) train youth to gain support for their entrepreneurial ventures by writing logical, research-based proposals for government and the private sector, and

3) as far as inter-group tolerance and compassion for marginalised citizens is concerned, equip youth to initiate small-scale, grassroots projects aimed at alleviating suffering, without enhancing pressure on government.

While these directions are certainly not without merit, there is a key danger in overemphasising them. They run the risk of normalising a neo-liberal brand of citizenship, which favours individualism, personal economic mobility and consumerism in ways that might end up depoliticising citizenship. In other words, active citizenship ends up being framed as a do-for-yourself mentality that, although valuable in many respects, lets government off the hook in terms of its obligations to deal with structural problems that impact everyday life among the youth.

Now let’s look at how some South African youth are implementing a version of active citizenship that might just avoid this trap, at least in part. Writers for one opinion blog are very careful to maintain an interest in independence from government (sometimes through entrepreneurship) without absolving government from its obligations. Writing about unemployment, one youth writer, Koketso Marishane argues:

“Redressing the legacy of apartheid in our country demands draconian efforts and systemic interventions that place emphasis on inclusion and transformation. The inclusion of education as one of the priority areas of government is extremely encouraging. [However, the] majority of these [unemployed youth] are high school and university graduates. They have been short-changed by the system, having invested resources (time, money and human efforts) only to end up joining the ranks of the unemployed. They are victims of the misalignment between what is offered in our educational system and the demands of our modern economy. More of the same is not an answer.”

Another writer, Lindokuhle Ntuli, ventures into the hotly contested debate around the legacy of anti-apartheid heroes:

“During both the 18th and 19th centuries, the operation of removing and relocating black people from their land became the order of the day with far-reaching consequences. […] The question today is whether our political emancipation since 1994 has brought about positive and real change in a society divided by class and race. […] The Madiba and Sisulu generation played their role in the context of their struggle, irrespective whether we believe more could have been done. What happens between now and the next coming 20 years is dependent on you and me, the current youth.”

What these pieces have in common is that they do not shy away from locating contemporary social issues within histories of colonial contact and racialised oppression. Simultaneously, they maintain an interest in independent thinking and the value of collaborative actions between self-reflecting citizens, without omitting an emphasis on the democratic value of keeping government accountable. Additionally, to different degrees, both pieces attempt to engage with carefully compiled research.

Of course, these pieces (and the larger body of texts that I sampled them from) also reflect particular weaknesses. The way they go about citing and incorporating research into their arguments can benefit from a more meticulous consideration of multiple perspectives, including perspectives that potentially countermand the authors’ own positions. However, at the very least, a trend like this underscores the danger of treating South African youth as members of a homogenous category that can be simplified as either apathetic or as vandals.

Taking cognisance of these developments, I suggest that keeping an eye on (and perhaps actively participating in) online blogs where youth are actively engaging with social problems, should remain on the priority lists of anyone interested in tracing democratisation in South Africa.