There was something disturbingly symbolic about the scenes that played themselves out at Luthuli House in Johannesburg this past week.
While the “suits” performed pompous procedures in the Luthuli House laager, a mostly adolescent mob was running amok outside. Clichés like “fiddling while Rome is burning”; “arranging deck chairs on the Titanic” and “let them eat cake” came to mind.
Every generation has its troubled youth. It is virtually physically ordained that we will have revolutionary flames in our bellies as we progress from puberty into that confusing period where we are expected to make decisions that will set the rest of our lives in stone. Adolescence is in the middle of life’s inexorable journey from unconditional taking as a baby, to unconditional giving when we die. It’s a time when we haggle with life. Unfortunately, many do not progress beyond this and never learn the bliss, contentment and true value of unconditional generosity.
At that age not all, perhaps very few, will have dreams of a suburban home with the proverbial white picket fence. They are only a few short years from the time when instant gratification was easily achieved by ear piercing howls from the cot. Short-termism, instant gratification and want-it-now is what drives the majority of pre-30’s. Indeed, research has shown that the earlier we learn the value of discernment and postponement, the more likely we are to achieve success and contentment in later life. But for most that comes only with experience, hard knocks, a few grey hairs and extra wrinkles.
In my youth there were missile hurling youngsters causing mayhem across the world. If you did not join the ranks of student rioters on campus or marchers against nuclear proliferation, you were protesting against the Vietnam War or racism and Apartheid. And you did not always need a cause: mods, skinheads, rockers, ducktails and hippies were all a symptom of agitated adolescents causing their own brand of social discomfort. South Africa’s turbulence between the sixties and nineties all had a large, perhaps major component of youth.
Violent protests are a daily fare in South Africa, with some 600 having been recorded in the past year. You would think that by now our security forces would have learned the art of crowd control that would make the live Television coverage in homes and public places a little less frightening. The recent London riots showed too that instant electronic messaging and networking, demands a much higher level of skill on the part of police. Today crowd control and protest containment are a policing science.
So we can take some comfort from the government’s intention to reinstate a special riot police unit. The ANC’S condemnation of the Luthuli House events as anarchic hooliganism and rabble rousing is ironic given President Jacob Zuma’s downplaying the Civil servants’ strike mayhem last year as “part of a culture of violence.” It is to be hoped that our obsession with the “right of assembly” will be tempered against the right to freedom and protection of others. The absence of full accountability for the actions of protestors is a key factor in the lack of discipline around such events.
The disquiet we should all feel about the latest protests, however, is much more than adolescent agitation or raging hormones. It is perhaps even a bit disingenuous on the part of many political analysts and commentators to interpret them mainly, if not exclusively as a political battle between Malema and Zuma; old ANC guard and new.
It’s actually irrelevant whether Malema is the voice of the voiceless; is a hypocritical champion of the poor, is merely an astute populist and politician; is economically illiterate and has half-baked economic ideas. Ultimately it is not all that relevant whether he stays or goes. Nothing in society happens in a vacuum. The events unfolding are a symptom of a much deeper malady. Like all symptoms, they can distract one from dealing with causes, like giving a nasal spray to a pneumonia patient. It is common cause that the real underlying problem in South Africa is unemployment, poverty and intolerable wealth disparities. Of course this is recognised by any commentator worthy of that status but they too have become somewhat distracted.
The malaise confronting the youth is much more serious. There is one very telling difference between what they face today, and what previous generations of adolescents had to deal with. It is the absence of hope. Previous youth had at least a sense of choice. They had a vague belief that if they chose to they could through hard work and their own aspirations achieve a measure of meaningful productive activity. Throwing stones at people in uniforms was “part of growing up” and not their only option of achieving a better life. It’s not that things were easier then. Indeed in many respects they were more robust and demanding. But their expectations were lower and dependence on others and governments less.
The disenchantment of today’s youth is more deep rooted. Despite its validity, no amount of rationalising about lack of discipline, being too dependent on others, and being spoilt detracts from the reality of their plight. Technology, demand for much higher and more specialised skills, globalisation, greater concentration of economic activity and many other features of our modern world have become quite overwhelming to a substantial proportion of today’s youth. This is severely compounded in South Africa by our past, poor education and widespread poverty
Quite frankly, I am glad I am not an average teenager in today’s world.