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Sean Jacobs © 2002


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Psyche is a hip-hop artist in Durban, a city on South Africa's eastern coast. As with most hip hoppers in South Africa, unlike their kwaito counterparts, all Psyche's songs are fiercely political. Exacting social realism permeates the lyrics: "My First Night", for example, deals with prostitution; "Downtown Chatsworth" tackles the evictions and resistance to them that has sprung up among African and Indian residents of the poor, working-class neighbourhoods on the outskirts of Durban.

Psyche and his crew have peopled the barricades to protect their neighbourhoods from the municipal police of the Durban city council, a council ruled by the former liberation movement African National Congress. The ANC council wants to evict residents who can not afford to pay their rent a poverty caused by the ANC government's disastrous economic and social policy. Like most hip hoppers, his music is interspersed with the odd, sexist pose. It is a sad failing in an otherwise valiant resistance. For Psyche and his crew are deliberately not party political -- theirs is a politics of mood and attitude. Crucially, for Psyche and his audience, politicians are expendable. Their cynicism, even though more politically involved, is not unusual among young people in South Africa.

In December 2000 over five million 18-29-year olds -- thirty percent of the total youth population -- registered to vote in South Africa's most recent elections for new local governments. This was certainly disappointing since all South Africans have only had the right to vote since 1994. In response, the Independent Electoral Commission set up to manage elections assisted by the government-funded youth commission -- organised a registration drive among young people. Despite this effort, less than half of youths registered to vote bothered to turn up at voting stations.

This is at odds with the recent political history of youth in South Africa where, only a decade ago, young black people were synonymous with political protest. Youths, mainly high school students, radicalised apartheid resistance from the mid-1970s. The school boycotts against Bantu education in 1976 were a pivotal moment in this struggle and generated a movement that went well beyond the school yard. In fact, anti-apartheid protest has always been propelled by generations of young people: the ANC Youth League and the turn to mass protest and later "armed struggle" from the 1950s onwards against their elders‚ politics of petitions and passive resistance, all this was youth-led. The first wave of young Turks was followed by Steven Biko's generation, with their assertiveness of black consciousness ideology when the state had virtually wiped out an internal ANC presence.

After 1976, the politics of young people were represented by the "young lions", as they were known then, who provided the foot soldiers to the popular insurrection of the United Democratic Front throughout the 1980s and laid the groundwork for when it was unbanned in 1990.

By the early 90s these "young lions" were, however, reduced to a "lost generation". The trauma and damage they endured placed them at a disadvantage in adjusting to the new social, economic and political challenges opened up by Mandela‚s release from prison. They struggled to concentrate, alongside the need to build a more equal society, on living "normal" lives.

A deficient education also compromised their potential. Over forty percent of young people are neither employed or in school. According to the national department of education forty-three percent of young adults and seventeen percent of youth are illiterate. Employment statistics indicate that only one in ten young South African school-leavers are expected to get a job. Not surprisingly, the majority of the unsuccessful ones will be black.

For a small minority of black youth of the 1980s generation, the future is not that bad. For educated blacks, life could not be better. Suddenly the whole world is opening up. In the 1980s the street talk was about politics, now it is about sex, clothes, cars and more importantly money, careers and relationships (and starting families). "We have no time for politics, we want to make money", is a familiar refrain of this generation.

Their white contemporaries were also damaged by apartheid, but are better prepared for the changes. Largely affluent and armed with better education, many young whites are able to exploit opportunities in the new service, banking and Internet-based sectors of the economy. Others emigrate, mainly to the UK, using connections with family and friends and motivated by a mixture of fear and economic practicalities. In the main, young whites have withdrawn from the political sphere.

At the same time, the younger brothers and sisters of the young lions are coming of age. The gulf between them and their older siblings could not have been wider. Take the average black twenty-year old in the townships today: at the time of the December 2000 elections, she was eighteen years old (the first time she could vote). When all South Africans voted for the first time in 1994, she was twelve. When Mandela was released from prison in 1990, she was eight years old. She have not lived the same history of apartheid or democracy. Her world is visibly different from that of the young lions: the issues she confronts may be just as stark; the enemy, however, is more elusive.

For her, democracy has not really delivered on its promise. Apart from poverty (most South Africans‚ living conditions are worse off now than ten years ago) and limited job prospects (unemployment at over forty percent), she now faces the potential of extreme forms of personal violence. Political violence has been replaced by rape, murder and child abuse as well as the danger of contracting HIV/AIDS. The pandemic is spreading fastest in this part of the continent.

Political freedom has also brought with it a new dominant political and social culture (sometimes finding expression in official and state discourses), one that blames victims for their condition, that stereotypes them as burdens on state resources and celebrates individual entrepreneurship. Popular culture celebrates excess. Consumerism rules.

The twenty-somethings deride formal politics as old school, passé and as politics-as-usual. And they have a point: since 1994 elections have become a mere formality as it becomes clear that the ruling ANC will achieve comfortable majorities time after time, which means it takes its electorate for granted, and the opposition (largely white) remains ineffective.

Young people feel largely ignored by politicians. The state instituted a National Youth Commission, run by young people, to ensure that their issues are integrated into all major government strategies and policies. But this body has been reduced to a halfway house for young lions (in their early to mid-thirties now) with an eye on political office. The National Youth Commission does not galvanise popular action, and appears to be dominated by youths allied to the ruling party. It has become a bureaucratic appendage of the state.

On campuses student organisations like the Students‚ Congress (SASCO) have consistently challenged both university authorities and the government (SASCO was originally the ANC's "university branch", but this bond is slowly being severed) over wider access to higher or tertiary education. COSAS, a largely township-based school movement, has also revived itself, mainly in rural parts of South Africa. Yet both movements struggle with the new political conditions, conditions that require more creative ways of raising young people's concerns or agitating for change. Other organisations, like the Joint Enrichment Project based in Johannesburg, the country's largest metropolis, are struggling to establish durable institutional frameworks. It is hard to establish a financial base since foreign sponsors have been withdrawing support following the end of apartheid.

More significantly, the anti-globalisation movement, which has served as an impetus to rebuild youth political structures elsewhere, has not caught-on among young people in South Africa; this despite the obvious links of the country to the global economy.

Probably the most consistent form of political activity is found in popular culture, particularly music. Some hip-hop, house and kwaito (a local form of house popular among urban black youth) musicians eschew the usual frivolity associated with these music forms. While avoiding becoming doctrinaire or self-righteous, they have begun to link their art to socio-economic conditions. In some cases, the songs make direct links between democratic citizenship and basic rights like clean water, affordable electricity, adequate housing and health care.

Their critique of government, society and economy is uninhibited, sophisticated and communicable to the victims of post-apartheid. The songs end abruptly, both musically and in content. What they lack is a "way forward" in their message. They just rap about the economic wasteland in which they live and have the people up and dancing, growing in confidence. It is this honesty that perhaps carries within it the seeds of a new school politics that could find expression in electoral politics and representative democracy.




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