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AD35: South African youth patriotic, optimistic about national cohesion, but low on civic engagement

Rorisang Lekalake 16 Jun 2015 South Africa
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Key findings
  • Young South Africans are highly supportive of a cohesive South African nation. Across all Afrobarometer surveys since 2000, on average about eight in 10 have agreed that citizens should think of themselves as “South Africans first” (83%) and that national unity is both desirable (82%) and possible (77%).
  • Young South Africans express high levels of patriotism across all race groups. In all Afrobarometer surveys since 2000, on average almost nine in 10 (86%) have said that being South African is an important part of their identity, while 87% are proud to be called South African and 87% would want their children to think of themselves as South African.
  • Increasing youth civic engagement is likely to be the most significant challenge in implementing the national youth policy. Most young South Africans are not active members of civic organisations, and most do not participate in raising issues or demonstrations. However, youth participation in community meetings has increased since 2000.

South Africa celebrates Youth Day every June 16 to commemorate the students who lost their lives during the Soweto Uprising in 1976. An estimated 3,000-10,000 students marched to protest the apartheid government’s directive to make Afrikaans a compulsory medium of instruction in public education, alongside English. The violent police response to this peaceful protest led to a widespread revolt against the government and exposed the brutality of the apartheid state to the international community. These events brought energy back into the liberation struggle and pushed young citizens to play a pivotal role in ending apartheid (South African History Online, 2015).

One of the legacies of this history is the paradoxical perception of youth in South Africa today as “the primary catalyst of activism and political change” on one hand and a generation in “crisis” on the other (Mattes & Richmond, 2015, page 1). In January 2015, the government introduced a draft National Youth Policy for 2014-2019, which highlights three key objectives related to consolidating the country’s political culture: strengthening patriotic citizenship, fostering national cohesion, and “encouraging visible and active participation in different youth initiatives/projects and nation-building activities” (Presidency, 2014, page 12).

Findings from Afrobarometer surveys in South Africa from 2000 to 2011 indicate that young adults are highly patriotic and support the creation of a united country across racial lines, but that their civic engagement is low. As previous analyses have pointed out (e.g. Mattes, 2011; Mattes & Richmond, 2015), there are significant deficits in the country’s political culture across all generations, including the issue of low engagement. The national education system does little to address this issue, because democratic values are not an explicit part of the curriculum, placing the additional burden of teaching them on poorly trained and equipped teachers.

Given the government’s prioritization of civic engagement by youth, it is clear that the national curriculum needs to address civics explicitly in order to achieve the objectives of the proposed youth policy.

Rorisang Lekalake

Rorisang Lekalake is a senior analyst/methodologist at Afrobarometer