A challenge was posed to me by the Chairperson of the Rhodes University South African Students Congress (SASCO), Mthobisi Buthelezi, at the seminar on “teaching born frees”.
He asked me to define what I meant when I said there was a missing “in-between sphere” in contemporary South African youth politics.
At the seminar I defined two dominant spheres of post-apartheid “youth political activity”.
The first is a largely middle-class sphere whose points of political engagement are informed by the mainstream media and online platforms.
Here you largely find debates which titillate an educated class that believes it is part of a broad ‘civic intellectual culture’.
This sphere is mostly confined to the economic elite and driven by a narcissistic individualism cultivated by our Model C and private schools system where we are led to believe we are natural leaders destined to be the most important voices in society.
The pinnacle of achievement in this sphere is the creation of a ‘personal brand’, ‘media profile’ and ‘fame’ and perhaps an appearance on some top young people list.
There are no new political insights to be found here, political conversations follow and regurgitate the mainstream media cycle.
The second sphere is what I crudely termed the ‘mass populism’ domain.
This sphere is dominated by ANC-alliance structures. Political engagement is largely treated as a mass mobilisation affair or internal party concern. This is the sphere of Floyd Shivambu and Julius Malema, where the majority of politically interested students, learners, and unemployed youth are located.
Here, issues are framed in a hodge-podge of Marxism, African traditionalism, African nationalism, non-racialism, Pan-Africanism, and government bureaucratic speak. More and more, the aim of this sphere is to discourage pointed questioning of the ANC’s current malaise and the deep flaws of its individual leaders.
In-between these two political spheres there exists a very small space where the possibility for a more independent youth public politics may emerge.
But does this space exist or is it mere possibility?
It exists, but barely.
We see youth-led groups in townships, informal settlements, rural areas rejecting partisan politics in favour of locally informed concerns; black-driven middle-class campus groups organising critical dialogue spaces; gender and sexuality campaigns critiquing elitism in their own political communities; privileged suburban kids volunteering, teaching, tutoring without drawing attention to themselves or assuming intellectual leadership over the poor; circles of poets, hip-hop heads and tavern-intellectuals who discuss political theory over quarts.
What they all have in common is a strong understanding of African emancipatory traditions and some desire to critically adapt them for today’s community concerns.
But this public sphere is tiny. The problem is one of imagination.
Post-apartheid youth, regardless of partisanship, have not yet seen that we have to create a new intellectual tradition from scratch.
Liberation traditions evolved in the context where “capturing” the state was the end goal. However, the “capture” has spawned a litany of failures by African leaders who refuse to give people genuine democratic power.
Thus while we have a political language of “capture”, we have yet to institutionalise accountability.
We talk of dismantling “white monopoly capital” by “socialising the means of production” but there’s little emphasis on how to “democratise the means of state and fiscal administration” which have been captured by our liberation movements.
The intellectual work is necessary; we must do it on our own terms for our own sakes.