According to the mid-year population estimates 2019 (MYPE), the youth (aged 18–34) constitute almost a third of the population (17,84 million) in South Africa. This is a part of the population that has been disillusioned because of the country ‘s economic uncertainty, political instability and crime. They are a generation of young people who are the most indebted in history, grew up at the height of the HIV epidemic, in a context were they are being failed by a dated education system that no longer guarantees them success, politics and corruption have become synonymous, the gap between and the rich and poor keeps getting wider, and the threat of climate change lurks in the air. Each year they read the headlines and experience the impact of growing unemployment as they continue to be led by corrupt politicians and a private sector that only seems to offer lip-service to their challenges. They feel disempowered and used by politicians who only go to their communities when they want votes during election season and a private sector that’s perceived to be making those who are already rich, richer. According to Stats SA 2019, a fifth of this youth group falls below the lower bound poverty line of R664 per person per month (using a money-metric approach).
All these factors have led to a generation that is distrusting of centralized leadership, hence a qualitative study by the Centre for Social Development in Africa found that 17.5 of young people were more distrustful of political parties and governmental organizations than older people. “Respondents also reported a lack of faith in democracy to deliver the socio-economic transformation that can meet their needs”. The misconception is that young South Africans have become apathetic when it comes to politics, but in reality, they are disillusioned and are tired of formal politics because they know that politicians are not the future of leadership. According to a study by Lauren Stuart, Thobile Zulu and Senzelwe Mthembu, “young people found political leaders to be self-serving and so were disinterested in them and their communities. While this group enjoyed watching parliament in action, this was because it provided entertainment value rather than serious content”. As self-aware, conscious, ethical people who believe in transparency, Justice and the power of the collective (instead of just self-interest), young people want leaders who embody and share those ideals and values. This is the same generation that believes in change through active citizenship, they co-created disruptive movements like the Fallist (#feesmustfall and #rhodesmustfall), #StopRacismatPretoriaGirlsHigh, #TotalShutDown, #AmINext? and etc.
So as a resolve to the leadership deficit, they now to look inwards within their niche communities for leaders who are not only authentic and credible but have a proven track record of prioritizing community interest. They are tired of false promises from government and private institutions that are constantly recycling leaders, with very minimal impact on their lives. Thus, at the core of their distrust, is a believe that Politicians are out of touch and disconnected with the granular challenges that are happening on the ground in communities, hence grassroots organizers and community activists are already living in those areas. These new-age leaders have first-hand experience when it comes to what needs to be addressed, the community’s pain points are something these leaders experience daily as well. ‘They are in it together’, so their approach is more personalized and tailored to address the complex challenges that different communities face, instead of broad government policy. For these community leaders, making a tangible impact is also in their interest since they also directly get to benefit from making changes, leaders who are a community-centred instead of being influenced by political or party mandates. These leaders know that there isn’t one size fits all solutions to unique challenges that many South Africans face on a daily.
Meanwhile, the role of the private sector is to have leaders who don’t just throw money at the problem through acts of charity, it’s about purposeful and meaningful impact that is driven by shared value. Upskilling and empowering communities with tools so they are self-reliant, long after the CSI initiatives are over. It’s about a sustainable impact. Collaborate with young leaders on the ground who understand the ins and out of the community, to invest wisely. It’s about investing in initiatives that already exist to help scale the collective.