The Winter of Their Discontent

Exploring what it means to be a youth in society today

Thabang Skwambane, co-founder and director of Kaelo Consulting and founder of the Lonely Road Foundation
Thabang Skwambane.gif
What is the definition of ‘youth’? It has different meanings and many different connotations; it is all a matter of perspective. The definition of ‘youth’ on the BrainyQuote website is: “The part of life that succeeds to childhood; the period of existence preceding maturity.” This is an incomplete notion, as the time frame varies between organisations, countries, cultures and even individuals.

I am 36 years old and, according to the African National Congress, no longer a ‘youth’. I explored my own youth, and this journey to adulthood was plagued with many challenges that are not relevant to the youth of today. Am I out of touch with young people? Or am I the product of age?

I went in search of this amorphous concept that had no definition, no real structure, but which was the rallying point of billions of people throughout the world. There have been more than 106 billion people who have ever lived and are alive today. Every one of them is or was a ‘youth’ at some point in their lives. 

I define it as the gateway through which we must all pass to enjoy our passage to adulthood. Maturity is not defined by age or the passing of youth, but is defined through our actions and the results thereof.
In a recent Stanlib Asset Management road show, it was calculated that South Africa has one of the youngest populations in the world, with our median age peaking just over 24 years of age. We have a distorted population pyramid as a result of our distinct healthcare issues. Is this problematic? Not if this youthful group is well-educated and socially content. 

The social discord that has plagued our country is not unique to South Africa. Youth discontent has flared up in Britain, Germany, Japan, India, China and Iran. The causes are all around a lack of opportunity and anger at a system that is not inclusive.   
In Africa, we have the dual situation of a very young population who has only recently come out of a turbulent past. The pain, however, is a transferred experience from stories, museums and history books. 

The youth of Africa have only the experience of exclusion, lack of opportunities, lack of resources, poor education, disease and poverty, among other challenges.

The planet is in peril because governments and business have acted without consideration. People have been exploited for centuries. Those who live below the poverty line are enslaved by dependency: like indigent children, their value is estimable by the amount of ‘aid’ that can be generated by their circumstance.

My healthcare business, Kaelo, did a massive outreach healthcare testing campaign in the discontented municipality of Dipaleseng in Mpumalanga. Our research revealed three things: hopelessness, awareness and a lack of respect for authority. We can safely say this attitude is consistent throughout South Africa and, I dare say, the rest of the continent.

The wonderment of life was revealed to me through experiences, and experience is developed over time, and time is the thief of youth. Do we thus lose our youth when we experience tragedy and loss? 

Why do we, the older generation, seem so out of touch with the youth? Is this a new concept? Have we not always had a disconnected relationship with youth and age? As we had experienced life, it is now consumed as information by the youth of today. 

This consumption–experience dichotomy is evidenced by the rise of ‘youth’ brands and products, and the tabloid celebrity culture.
It is time to invest in education and education systems that will ensure our children are able to assume their rightful and constructive place in society when they become adults.

It is time we put ourselves and our self-interests aside and listened to young people; as angry and unhappy as they may be, there will be a space of healing and possibility in being heard, then the innocent passion and energy of youth could flourish and blossom in our communities, businesses and countries.

It is time for us to start creating the type of platforms for young leaders in our society. The Archbishop Tutu Leadership Fellowship Programme by the African Leadership Institute is the foremost young leader development programme and is a testament to the possibility of successful future generations and the creation of a significant leadership base with a social conscience and a moral fibre sorely lacking in our public and private leaders. 

Finally, it is our responsibility to address the massive issue of orphans and vulnerable children (OVC) in Africa. It is estimated there are in excess of 12.5 million OVC in Africa, three million from South Africa alone. We are not only responsible, but our future and the safety of our society are dependent on effective programmes and support structures to address this issue. 

Angry youths will be incomparable to millions of disaffected youths who not only were not given opportunities, but who were 
neglected by society itself. 

For our children and our children’s children, we must support the youth – but, more importantly, we must realise that the problems of the youth in 1976 are a shadow of the struggle in which we are about to engage.

Thabang Skwambane
Skwambane is co-founder and director of Kaelo Consulting (www.kaelo.co.za), a successful corporate and organisational healthcare solution provider, as well as founder and chairperson of The Lonely Road Foundation (www.thelonelyroad.org), an organisation set up to help rural communities manage their own OVC problems.
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