An opinion on opinions: A possible next step in ACTIVATE!’s engagement with youth

By: Dr Marthinus Conradie

The youth of South Africa face an intimidating number of difficult questions. Here is a short list: What kind of identity should the youth of today try to develop? Should the youth focus on a single identity, or on various, different kinds of identities? What kinds of values should guide this search for identity? What does this search for identity, and for values, have to do with history, such as the youth of 1976? How will it lead the way into the future?

ACTIVATE! Change Drivers is one of the places where the youth of South Africa are trying to work on these questions. The topic of this essay is the way some Activators have been doing this right here under the opinions section. In some ways, this essay is a little strange, because it is an essay about essays; an opinion piece about the opinion pieces you will find here on the A! Blog. Take note that everything I have to say is based on my own personal ideas. Therefore, I want to encourage you, right from the start, to think carefully about what you will read below. I do not expect you to share my opinions, but I do hope that you will read them with an open mind. In the rest of this essay, I focus on two positive patterns on ACTIVATE!– two things that I think writers on ACTIVATE! should be praised for (writers such as Prince Charles (2018), Dumisa Mbuwa (2018), and Lindokuhle Ntuli (2018)) – before offering two suggestions for improvement.

First, let me give you a very short introduction about myself. I teach at a South African university. From this position, I have witnessed peaceful protests and disruptive protests. I have talked with students who have suffered intimidation from security forces, and with students who have been intimidated by fellow students. I have also spoken to teaching staff who have been assaulted by students. Every year, students share personal experiences of racism, sexism and homophobia with me, which makes me deeply thankful for their trust. For the last two years, I have also enjoyed reading opinion pieces on the A! Blog, especially the ideas shared by writers listed above. 

Next, let’s talk about two positive trends on the A! Blog. Think of some of the criticisms you have heard people throw at the youth. Sometimes, the youth are described as politically careless members of a lazy generation. People say things such as:

This generation is not hardworking enough and they do not have the moral character or work ethic needed to create a united future for all South Africans.

Sometimes, the youth are described as hooligans. People with such opinions say things such as:

This generation is politically active, but only in bad ways. All they can do is pursue their goals by torching public buildings and or by upending trash cans.

Both criticisms might appear valid on the surface… and yet both criticisms simplify a reality that is far more complicated. The above-mentioned writers for ACTIVATE! try to avoid such shallow descriptions. Instead, they are dedicated to uncovering details and to understanding complications. They are aware that any kind of insight can only be developed by paying very close attention to what lies beneath the surface, even when this process of looking deeper requires time to think. And writers for ACTIVATE! avoid such shallow descriptions by doing two things:

First, writers for ACTIVATE! are brave enough to admit that maybe – just maybe – not all the things they write and all the opinions they express are completely correct. This open-mindedness is extremely important. It means that Activators can avoid turning this online space into a place where the same people keep shouting the same ideas back and forth without really, truly thinking.

The second positive thing that struck me is that Activator freelancers try to support their ideas by referring to historical sources and to the latest news reports. Online media has given all of us a place where we can share our opinions. Looking for evidence to support our opinions is an important next step. Sometimes, this next step might mean that we research historical events, or read up on the latest news – and that we read carefully instead of just skimming the surface. And sometimes, this step might mean that we should be brave enough to share our own personal experiences (even if personal experience does not feel like real evidence), before inviting other people to help us make sense of what these experiences mean in a wider context.

Now that I have described these two positive trends, let me mention two things that are missing. ACTIVATE! opinion pieces allow readers to leave comments. Sadly, however, very few readers actually leave any comments. This is not the authors’ fault, but the readers’.  This lack of comments is a missed opportunity for debate. Readers should leave comments, so that new readers can study both the opinion pieces themselves as well as other people’s reactions. Leaving comments might just encourage more debate, and this debate will help all of us to gain a clearer understanding of the world around us, including those difficult questions about identity.

The second thing that is missing is that Activators have not yet successfully invited members of the youth from the rest of Southern Africa, the African continent and world, to join its debates. I strongly suggest that Activators reach out and connect with youth across the globe. The internet makes this much easier than it used to be. Personally, I never trust my mind completely until I have entered into conversations with others. Perhaps none of us should.  

In closing, university teachers, researchers and other interested parties are actually taking youth activism and its online activities very seriously, even when it does not look like it (as examples consider reading Buire and Staeheli, 2017 and Lee, 2018). These kinds of spaces hold a level of power that you (dear reader) should never underestimate. People are listening. Your voices are being heard.


Photo Credit: Voices of Youth 

Related Articles