June 16 commemorations must focus on how to improve the increasingly dire situation of most young people

The writer says the fortunes of young black people in the townships are not improving 

As celebrate Youth Month, we must emphasise a holistic approach to youth development together with economic development. The sad story of KARABO MOKOENA tells a tragic tale of access to economic opportunities being wasted by social ills such as substance abuse, gender-based violence and the spread of HIV/AIDS, writes LUYANDA TENGE.

This year has been declared the year of Oliver Reginald Tambo in South Africa. Yet what is less known is that this year we also commemorate the centenary of the sinking of the SS Mendi in the English Channel. It is reported that over six hundred young men, who formed part of the South African Native Labour Corps, perished in the Great War, the First World War.

It is therefore appropriate that we remember these young men, as we commence Youth Month. They who gave their lives for freedom and who fought gallantly against the best armies of the world.  

The words of the Reverend Isaac Wauchope Dyobha, who also died in the sinking of the Mendi, remind us that young South Africans continue to have a role to play in fighting for freedom. 

Dyobha said: “We are the sons of Africa. Raise your war cries, brothers, for though they made us leave our assegais in the kraal, our voices are left with our bodies.”

Yet the year also marks the 17th anniversary of the first solo performance by Miriam Makeba, at the tender age of fifteen. Sixty years ago she appeared in her first film, Come Back Africa

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the death of Ashley Kriel. A combatant of Mkhonto weSizwe, Kriel, aged 20, Kriel died at the hands of security police. A leader and hero on the Cape Flats, Kriel is revered as an activist who was willing to tackle the challenges of his community.

Young people in South Africa can be proud of their heroes and heroines. AP Mda, Caesarina Kona Mkhoere, Anton Lembede, Bertha Mashaba and Solomon Mahlangu. All these remained committed, as young people, to ensure a better life for the people of South Africa.

The situation of young people in our country today remains, however, a challenge. According to Statistics South Africa, 66% of those regarded as unemployed, in the economically active group, are young people between the ages of 18 and 35. Low skills and lack of opportunities often lead to errant behaviour such as crime.

Young people continue to bear the brunt of substance abuse such as drugs and alcohol as well as the violence and irresponsible behaviour that often accompanies these scourges.  

The National Institute for Crime Prevention and the Reintegration of Offenders (Nicro) released a report in 2015 confirming the plausible link between substance abuse and crime. The report is resolute in stating that serious and chronic offenders, who start off as juveniles, are more likely to be substance abusers than, say, once off juvenile offenders.  

The report goes on to indicate that substance abuse is often linked to parole violations and recidivism. The results of the research, by Nicro, show that between twenty-seven to forty-seven percent of intentional injuries perpetrated were directly related to alcohol use.  

Emphasis is, however, placed on both the relation between long-term substance abuse, whether its drugs and/or alcohol and crime as well as whether the person was under the influence when the crime was committed. It is an important distinction to make, yet the links between substance abuse and crime remain strong.

The sad story of Karabo Mokoena tells a tale of young people who were economically secure or at least had access to opportunities.  This, however, did not eliminate the possibilities of substance abuse and the domestic violence that accompanied such success. Again, the possibility of the abuse of substances cannot be ruled out in this instance either. Economic freedom was not the only answer for Karabo.

Norwegian governmental agencies, together with the World Health Organisation and the United Nations Development Programme, among other non-governmental organisations, were therefore innovative to host a conference in May 2015 on the theme of trying to integrate the approaches to national policies dealing with substance abuse, gender-based violence and the spread of HIV.

Often these policies are articulated and crafted in isolation of each other. But following on from the conference held in Windhoek, national policies had to take a broader approach in dealing with these challenges. South Africa, which was also represented at the conferences, could learn from this approach, especially with a view of focusing on young people.   

The focus on youth development though continues to take centre stage in the administration of President Jacob Zuma. Launching Youth Month, President Zuma met with the Presidential Youth Working Group. Primarily, the group brings together government, a committee of deputy ministers, and those organisations working in the youth sector in order to influence policy and implement programmes. 

Already the Working Group has been able to report on some successful ventures, including the War on Leaks programme which equips ten thousand young people as water agents, electricians, plumbers among other artisan orientated skills development. Of these, the presidency reports, 55% percent are women.

The National Youth Development Agency envisages ensuring that nearly 800 new enterprises have emerged and over eighteen thousand young entrepreneurs will receive the necessary support.

Eight thousand young people are cited to take up opportunities in real estate while nineteen thousand young people are participating in the National Rural Youth Service Corps.

It is important for the private sector to show commitment in their determination to ensure the that our young people are taken out of the cycle of the violence of poverty and unemployment. A tangible commitment to this would be an increase in the skills levy tax and ensuring all their workers have access to affordable healthcare.

While emphasis must continue to be placed on getting young people opportunities, it is important to understand that the development of young people needs to be holistic. The recreational activities, the communities in which they live and the people they interact with all play a part in producing a generation of young people who are determined to produce a better South Africa. 

A social problem is a condition that at least some people in a community view as being detrimental to social solidity. Everyone would agree about some social problems, such as murders caused sparked mostly by substance abuse, gender based violence etc. Generally, the age when young people start engaging in alcohol or taking their first drink is becoming lower each year. Wide-ranging observations in the society, especially in townships, show that pre-teens are experimenting with alcohol and many are already heavy drinkers. 

The situation of young people in South Africa has become a challenge even in the post-apartheid era. The triple crisis continues to trouble and haunt young black people in particular, in the form of unemployment, poverty and inequality. As we celebrate the 41st anniversary of the Soweto uprisings we should reflect on how we address this crisis and create conditions that are conducive for the holistic development of young people as whole.  

Tenge is SASCO Eastern Cape Provincial Chairperson

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