June is “Youth Month” in South Africa, and next week South Africa celebrates Youth Day on June 16. I thought it would be a good time to reflect on the state of youth in this country, as the challenges facing youth are thought by many to be critically important right now.
Youth Day, like many South African holidays, has a political origin. The Soweto Uprising, a series of student-led protests, began on June 16, 1976. South Africa is commemorating the 35th anniversary of that event this year. Some of the events of the uprising are preserved and presented in the Hector Peiterson museum in Soweto, which I’ve written about before. Many see this uprising, which took place in response to the introduction of the Afrikaans language as the medium of instruction in local schools, as a turning point in the struggle against apartheid.
Today, 17 years after apartheid officially ended, there is both hope and concern for the youth of South Africa. Although gains are being made in youth education among peoples who were classified as non-white during apartheid (Black, Coloured, Indian), as a group non-white youth lag behind their white counterparts in terms of educational opportunity and attainment, although this is less true of Indian youth compared with Black and Coloured youth. The unemployment rate among youth is very high (over 50% by some estimates) and there is a concern that if the government cannot do some serious intervention around education, job training, and economic growth, youth will have little hope. In South Africa this frustration and lack of hope often has led to violence. Many people with whom I have spoken believe that education and job opportunities are THE most critical issues facing South Africa today. In 2004, ten years after the end of apartheid, youth unemployment was seen as THE most pressing post-apartheid development challenge. The South African government clearly has recognized this and has launched a series of initiatives aimed at the development of young people and coordinated by the National Youth Development Agency (NYDA).
One problem that faces South Africa to a greater degree than most nations is the high percentage of child-headed households. Child-headed households are just that: households where all members are under 18 years. Contrary to popular opinion, research shows us that in a minority of cases this phenomena has resulted from AIDS deaths; in most other cases parents simply have left due to substance abuse or other mental health problems. Not surprisingly, the conditions of children living in child-headed households are worse than children who live in households with an adult. Children in child-headed households are less likely to live in formal dwellings or to have access to sanitation or water on site.
In the communities I have visited here in the greater Durban area there is concern about youth drug use, gang involvement, violence, and the high rates of HIV infection. STDs and teen pregnancy are high on the list of problems communities are concerned about. One of the community meetings I visited early on was focused on community-based interventions that would engage youth and deter youth involvement in risk-taking and illegal behavior. There is some evidence that some efforts are working. A couple of months ago SANCA (South African National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence) hosted a meeting for youth in Durban that was directed toward preventing alcohol and other drug abuse that was well attended, and this week Childlines, an organization I’ve also written about before, had a special youth-focused meeting.
As a stress and coping researcher with developmental and prevention interests, I believe investment in youth is very important. The roots of prosocial behavior and civic engagement, as well as violence, alcohol and other drug abuse, and other unhealthy behaviors, start in childhood. Thus, I believe a focus on caregivers is as equally important as a focus on youth. We need to understand the stressors, coping resources, coping behaviors, and adjustment of those caring for and parenting youth – and need to provide supports for these caregivers. This will go a long way, in my view, toward helping youth. This is one reason why my own scholarship has focused on caregivers as much as on youth. It is also why the collaborative research project I am doing with colleagues here in South Africa – Project CARE – attends as much to the experiences of caregivers as it does to the experience of youth. What I haven’t done as much work on, but think is vitally important, is understanding the experiences of both social and biological fathers. It is a bit challenging to engage fathers in research, but it can be done. My foray into this area in Richmond revealed that African American fathers see themselves as having unique roles in their adolescents’ development, but also cite significant barriers to being all that they need to be for their children – including the fact that many grew up without a father or with an unhealthy role model as a father.
Today South Africa faces significant issues related to youth development. However, I believe that with political will, coupled with the efforts of NGOs and regular citizens, the country can see significant progress in this area. Some believe that this effort is a necessity, not a luxury. It will be interesting to track development in this area in the next few years.