When I was invited to attend a debate, I thought it would be a quick trip to Johannesburg. It has turned out to be a long journey. Although the traveling itself took only 24 hours, I have learnt a lot about myself and about the people that share the roads we travel on in South Africa, and so the trip was about more than traveling over 1000kms across South Africa, it was about listening, sharing, debating and discussing.
It started last week with an invitation to The Mail & Guardian’s Critical Thinking Forum which was to debate ‘The Role of South Africa’s Youth in the National Development Plan’. By Monday this week it was confirmed that I would attend and by Wednesday morning the journey began in earnest – starting with a shuttle from Grahamstown to Port Elizabeth. On the drive I was fortunate to have a very friendly, intelligent South African driver, and we chatted about many things. The conversation started with talk about Nelson’s Mandela’s continued stay in hospital, and then swiftly moved onto his impressions of the bumpy road that South Africa currently finds itself on. He lamented about the fact that things had not changed significantly since the end of Apartheid, and commented that many people he had spoken to said that things had in fact gotten worse. While there are many aspects of the lives of ordinary people that have improved significantly, the media sometimes point to particular sectors which have deteriorated since the transition to democracy. The Economist, for example, recently published a story where it reported that Mamphela Ramphele had argued that education is currently worse than during Apartheid (http://www.economist.com/news/middle-east-and-africa/21580151-ruling-party-triumphed-under-nelson-mandela-desperate-need). Business Day quoted Desmond Tutu as saying that violence is worse now than during apartheid (http://www.bdlive.co.za/national/2013/04/12/sa-more-violent-now-than-under-apartheid-says-tutu). While these are subjective positions, they clearly point to some of the potholes that we are currently experiencing as South African citizens on the road to a grown-up democracy.
The flight to Johannesburg was uneventful and I quickly made my way to Rosebank where the event was being held. The debate itself included some of the 200 Young South Africans, recently profiled in the Mail & Guardian (http://mg.co.za/report/200-young-south-africans), and was targeted very much at a young, professional, elite audience who were there to debate and discuss how to get more young people (those who are not the targets of the event) to engage with the National Development Plan (NDP – http://www.info.gov.za/issues/national-development-plan/).
The first panel comprised of Matsi Modise (National executive director of the South African Black Entrepreneurs Forum), Lise Kuhle (Founder of Eco Smart), Godfrey Phetla (Director for policy and research at the Department of Trade and Industry), Angel Kgokolo (President of the JCI South Africa), and Langalethu Manquele (from BMF). This panel was tasked with discussing the NPA itself, and while this was interesting, it centered largely around enterprise development and whether this was the best option for addressing unemployment amongst the youth as proposed by the NDP. The questions that constantly came to mind for me were: Do young people know about the NDP? How do they find out about opportunities for internships, starting their own businesses, and mentorships? How much of the knowledge being shared in the room by these panelists is in the public sphere and being debated in the media in a way that is accessible and relevant to young people? Is the NDP the right vehicle for change, and are young people drivers, passengers, or bystanders desperately trying to catch a lift?
The second panel comprised of Mike Sharman (owner of Retroviral Digital Communications), Khanyisile Magubane (SAfm broadcaster), Catherine Peter (Africa Director of One Young World), and Patrick Mashanda (Regional coordinator of Ikamva Youth). This panel looked specifically at the role of the media in addressing social cohesion – the focus of much of the work I do. The panel members said many interesting, inspirational, but somewhat idealistic things in their very short openings. The really interesting comments, however, started once the debate opened to the floor and as participants we were able to contribute. Many people complained about the largely negative reporting in the media, and the phrase “if it bleeds, it leads” was quoted numerous times, guests questioned the popularity of tabloid newspapers, and the media was generally charged with poor driving and failing to obey the rules of the normative road a democracy follows – i.e. being the watchdog, holding the government to account, and giving citizens a voice to debate in the public sphere.
And this is the crux of where the mainstream news media is failing. I qualify the media here, because I think a problem with the debate was that ‘the media’ was treated as a homogenous entity that needed to be put into place, but is in fact a multi-faceted institution in South African society that varies so greatly that we need to be quite careful in how we use the term. In my view, the biggest role (and there are many) that the mainstream news media can play in engaging with young people on the NDP (or any issue for that matter) is to allow young people VOICE in their coverage of issues that affect young people. These are the very issues that we have been doing research on in the Mellon Media and Citizenship Project, and we have learnt a lot about young people over the last year and a half. The issues which are the most important to young people currently are the economy, service delivery, health, education, and crime. The young people that we spoke to in our study said that they were most concerned about crime (93.4%), the economy (90.7%), and health (89.3%). The problem is that these are not the issues that are being covered for young people in the mainstream news media they consume.
More worryingly, is that even in coverage on issues which do affect young people, the stories do not speak to young people, and they certainly do not give voice to young people. In research I conducted which examined coverage by a range of newspapers around the country (Daily Dispatch, Grocott’s Mail, and Mail & Guardian), coverage on education included young people as sources or quoted young people in only 9.7% of the stories. More often stories quoted or gave voice to adults in management positions at schools or universities, government officials, or members of the public. This, in part, is why tabloid newspapers should not be laughed at or regarded disparagingly, and it is why they are so popular – they give voice to ordinary South Africans who are telling their stories (regardless of how bizarre they are).
If the media want to include young people on the road to building a strong democracy, they need to invite them on the journey rather than ignore them as bystanders. If the young, upwardly mobile South Africans who attended the debate are any indication of where the born frees can get to and how they can do it, then the young people of today are a force as strong as those who drove the revolution in 1976.
And so, having shared the work that we’ve done, and having listened to young people with something to say, I made my way back to the Eastern Cape. Another uneventful flight, and another interesting conversation with the shuttle driver. We came to the conclusion that there is a long road ahead for South African’s, but that the scenery is worth the effort. As we made our way through the rolling hills of the Eastern Cape, I wondered how many young South Africans would be making their own journeys of discovery and where the road would lead them.