Political Activism Among Cape Town Youth

Photo By: Ollivier Girard is licensed under the CC BY-NC 4.0 license.

Political Activism Among Cape Town Youth

An Overlooked Reality

Last year, Forbes Magazine listed Cape Town, South Africa, as one of the most popular bucket list destinations on earth.

Describing the city as a “dream location to visit with endless natural beauty and clifftop views, pastel pink neighborhoods, and turquoise waters.” With thousands of tourists flocking to the city each day before the COVID-19 pandemic, this dynamic destination—which serves as a paradise for outsiders—is far less so for many of its own.

In the spring of 2019, I experienced Cape Town’s culture and history firsthand while conducting a research project on activism and political engagement rates among youth living in the post-apartheid era. These youth are “born frees,” which is a phrase coined to represent the first generation of South Africans born after the end of apartheid in 1994.

According to a report by the World Bank, South Africa is one of the most unequal countries in the world. Intergenerational mobility is relatively low, meaning that there is little difference between the life outcomes of a given generation and that of the previous generation—a barrier to inequality reduction. Although young adults are the shining beacon of Nelson Mandela’s dream of a “rainbow nation,” crime, poverty, and corruption hinder the freedoms that the born-free generation was promised.

The process of relocating Black Africans to peripheral townships during apartheid was not only designed to ”cleanse” white inner-city areas but also served as a mechanism for the minority white population to suppress and exert unflinching control over these communities. It was a system deliberately and meticulously designed to push Black people into an orderly, submissive underclass. The effects of this are still being felt by the new generation of youth today.

To understand these underlying effects more clearly, my research partner and I administered a survey and conducted focus groups in six racially and socioeconomically diverse secondary schools across Cape Town over ten weeks.

With a focus on the effects of institutionalized racial segregation on mental health, behavior, and political engagement of South African youth, we analyzed factors such as family history, general perceptions of the government, and their personal experiences. By addressing these issues, we hoped to identify which factors do or do not push a student to play a politically active role in their country.

We found that many of the students surveyed were dissatisfied with their current government, reporting corruption as a rampant social issue hindering politicians and government officials from focusing on impoverished communities living in townships such as Khayelitsha and Langa. In addition, many expressed that hospitals and schools have few resources and low funding compared to predominately white areas. Many felt that the government does little to address these issues and only pays attention to their communities when the Black vote is needed to win an election.

With few jobs available and higher education inaccessible, many young people must resort to less ideal methods of providing for themselves and their families, including drugs, sex work, robbery, and gang violence.

These cries for reform and social change come amid the recent #FeesMustFall and #RhodesMustFall movements, which call for the reduction of university fees and the removal of the Cecil Rhodes statue on the University of Cape Town, respectively. These movements were predominantly driven by born-frees and their dissatisfaction with the South African process of democratization. The rising cost of higher education and student loan debt saddle many young people into burdensome repayment terms amid a tight job market.

With recent demands to remove various statues and figures in Cape Town associated with slavery and colonialism, there is a call to address systematic racism and anti-Blackness. Many of the students we interviewed voiced these concerns and stated that they wish to be activists for their communities.

However, they feel that their demands would fall on deaf ears.

Many feel demotivated to protest because it often leads to disappointment and an inability of government figures to take their concerns seriously. Politicians often exert power through patronage as decision making lies in the hands of the elite. In South Africa, this is commonly referred to as ”state capture”—a term describing a situation where private interests have undue influence over a country’s affairs. Since unethical and corrupt leaders so heavily drive policy, citizens have very little power to influence decision making as the government is often labeled as an “untouchable entity.” One student responded that even though ”money talks” when dealing with politics, ”the skin of the country” talks even more.

Apartheid brought about a dramatic shift in the political and social landscape of South Africa. Democracy did not emerge spontaneously. It was a complex process, following years of multifaceted struggle. However, even with the newfound freedom and equal constitutional rights Nelson Mandela’s ANC party brought to millions, inequalities continue to grip the country. While apartheid has legally ended, there is still work that needs to be done. South Africa’s youth seem to be at the forefront of these calls to action.

So, when admiring the spectacular views of Cape Town from the infamous Table Mountain or driving alongside the most jaw-dropping routes at Chapman’s Peak, remember that, as tourists, we are afforded the privilege of enjoying Cape Town’s beauty.

Meanwhile, those who call the country home still fight to be heard.

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