The dumbing down of our youth

Rhoda Kadalie says the ANC's gravest error was to mistake change for progress

The ANC has failed South Africa's youth.

Its Youth League is more concerned about the conspicuous consumption and instant wealth of its leader, Julius Malema, than pressurising government to address the needs of the youth. A month ago I spoke at a university graduation. The comment that received the most applause was my advice to students not to let "Julius Malema derail them from achieving their dreams."

The fear that he will become president one day is deep, and thousands of young people are tired of having him thrust down their throats. The sooner the ANC refrains from using its youth leaders as pawns in their political games, the better for all of us.

It should, instead, invest energy and resources in the holistic development of young people to prepare them for a better future. In the meantime, our white counterparts are continuing on an upward trajectory, getting on with life, educating their children, creating platforms for them to excel in sports and the arts, and sending them abroad when there is no work for them here.

I see how they excel in the orchestras, the eisteddfods, at public speaking, classical music and maths and science competitions.

Black SA, on the other hand, is on the decline. And Parliament, as the body that represents us, is itself a display of mental vacuity. The inanity of public discourse seems almost deliberate and the youth has become a casualty of the national "dumbing down" process.

The South African Institute of Race Relations' Fast Facts (May 2011) reveals a picture that is grim and bears repeating. Teenage pregnancies are rife and resulted in some 50 000 of school girls dropping out of school in 2007 - a 151% increase since 2005.

Equally alarming is the result of a survey conducted in KwaZulu Natal of 14 - 22 year-olds which revealed that 54% of young men left school because of fathering a child. "Girls aged 17 - 19 account for 93% of pregnancies among 15 - 19 year olds and research cited by LoveLife has suggested that teen pregnancy is much more likely to occur after school drop out." "... Abortions among under-18 year olds rose by 124% from 4 432 in 2001 to 9 895 in 2006."

Poor education results add fuel to the fire. Of the one million students who enrolled in grade 10 in 2007, 51% wrote the matriculation exams. Of those 31% passed grade 12 in 2009, and only 10% shockingly gained matriculation exemptions.

On average 17% of 16-18 year olds were not in school in 2006. University throughput rates are no better. Of 138 000 students who enrolled at university in 2002, 52% gave up while 15% were still studying after five years.

SA's dysfunctional school system and poor university throughput rates explain the high unemployment rates amongst the youth. In 2009 48% of SA's of 15 - 24 year olds were unemployed; by 2010 unemployment in that group increased to 51%. Some 3.3 million are not in employment, education, or training.

This bleak scenario coexists with high rates of HIV, sexual assault, rape and crime, and dysfunctional families, where fathers are mostly absent and mothers and grandmothers bear the brunt of child rearing. With 36% of the entire prison population aged 25 and under, the future looks bleak indeed.

The ANC's magnificent victory over apartheid paved the way for it to undo the carnage that the group areas act, forced removals, relocation and resettlement wreaked on black families. Dominated by an educated black male leadership, the Party was uniquely placed to create role models for young black men by adopting policies and programmes to heal family dysfunction caused by the past.

Had they roped in religious and civil society organisations to help them rebuild families, nurture parental responsibility and build social capital amongst communities, at the inception of our democracy, SA today would have been a better place. Safe sex campaigns should have accompanied campaigns about safe relationships, mutual respect, love and compassion.

Instead, the ANC's gravest error was to mistake change for progress. It has reneged on one of its most important functions - nation-building. We are sitting on a time bomb and unless we act fast, society will unravel. To quote John Kerry: " is time for those who talk about family values to start valuing families."

This article first appeared in Die Burger.  

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