While we, as a country, are no longer at war, a complex and multidimensional struggle is raging in our communities, especially among young South Africans, writes Alef Meulenberg.
The struggle against systemic apartheid may be over, but that doesn’t mean South Africa is truly at peace. While peace and freedom are precious commodities that have brought all of us so much good, it has not resulted in the same benefits for everyone in equal measures.
To some, both concepts may not mean anything at all, looking at general voting hesitancy and political apathy trends. During the 2019 general elections, only 65.9% of people eligible to vote marked their cross, the lowest rate ever in our democratic history. The Electoral Commission also revealed that six of nine million people who did not register to vote in 2019 were young people. I suspect the upcoming local elections will show similar trends.
While problematic, I feel we can’t blame people for refusing to participate in the processes that are so fundamental to our peace and freedom. What could peace mean when you, like your parents and their parents, are unemployed (despite having a degree), poor, and hungry? What does it mean when you have no access to good education, are surrounded by violence, and face social ills from the moment you wake up until when you go to sleep? It is like Nelson Mandela said eight years before he passed: “While poverty persists, there is no true freedom.”
A complex struggle
These are some of the questions that keep me awake at night – especially on International Day of Peace.
While we, as a country, are no longer at war, a complex and multidimensional struggle is raging in our communities, especially among young South Africans. It is a war against joblessness, sexual violence, crime, food insecurity, poor access to essential services, and various tidal waves of corruption, exploitation, and other social deprivations.
It is a misconception that communities, including young people, are taking their realities lying down. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Every day, armies of brave foot soldiers across the country wake up with the desire to change their and their country’s narrative. I know so because I work with them every day, from Diepsloot and Alexandra in Johannesburg to Mfuleni in Cape Town.
The question is: how do we, outsiders, help young people win their struggle? How can we, the public, government, civil society, and private businesses, play a role in creating communities at peace with and within each other?
These are two other questions that are slowly turning me into an insomniac.
Based on my work for Afrika Tikkun, I would say the first step is for all stakeholders to come together, leave agendas, politics, and egos at home, and develop decisive action plans together with communities. These should have one clear deliverable: fostering communities where people thrive and move beyond being in survival mode.
These holistic and collaborative plans need to consider the wellbeing of all segments of society, including the youngest of the young. Helping young people thrive starts way before they walk, talk and go to school. If you want to build a resilient house that can withstand the fiercest of storms, you need to begin with building a solid foundation.
An often-ignored fact is that a person’s first 1000 days after birth are the cornerstone of the rest of their life. Adults who have had access to quality ECD services, for instance, are typically far better off than those who didn’t.
Besides allowing children to develop mentally, emotionally, and cognitively through play, many ECD centres in this country have another vital role: providing meals. This, too, has long-term benefits for the individual and our country as a whole. Research shows that almost a third of young children are stunted and that these little ones are more likely to drop out of school later, have lower grades, and remain unemployed and poor than their peers who had enough to eat while growing up.
In other words, a hungry nation can’t ever be a peaceful nation.
Besides developing meaningful, collaborative, and long-lasting action plans instead of working in silos, all stakeholders must ensure these are implemented and executed appropriately, followed through, and regularly evaluated. Finally, those dragging their feet should be held accountable, without fear or favour, and most importantly: immediately.
Will this be easy? No, but we owe it to ourselves, our country, our future, and our freedom. Freedom and peace mean nothing if only a few can reap the fruits of it. It is also the only way to get our youngsters involved in our democracy again, ensuring we have future leaders who are determined to, passionate about taking this country forward., and taking keeping Tata Madiba’s legacy alive. It was him who wrote in his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom that “to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”
– Alef Meulenberg is the CEO of Afrika Tikkun.
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