Op-ed: Let’s not unfairly overburden young MPs with “youth issues”

Understanding South Africa’s government and electoral systemIt is a good thing that more and more young people are climbing up the echelons of SA politics.

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An unprecedented number of MPs under the age of 35 were sworn into parliament on Wednesday, 22 May 2019.

A notable victory for those of us within this age group, since as elsewhere in the world, young people are often unfairly dismissed as apathetic; a sentiment that is usually propelled as an explanation for the low voter turnout and registration rates among the youth. 

Fees Must Fall activists appointed as MPs

Chief amongst those sworn in last week, were ‘Fallist’ activists – a movement that swept across South African institutions of higher education between 2015-2016, advocating for the removal of university fees, an end in the outsourcing of workers and the decolonisation of education.

Key amongst those elected, include activists Peter Keetse and Naledi Chirwa, the Student command leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) Vuyani Pambo, and the former Wits University Student Representative Council President Nompendulo Mkhatshwa, who represents the African National Congress (ANC), as well as Sibongiseni Ngcobo, who represents the Democratic Alliance (DA). 

All of the above are robust and intelligent people, with a strong sense of justice and who want to do what is right.

However, we should not overburden them with the sole responsibility of being the main custodians and representatives of “youth” issues in parliament.

The role of the youth in South African politics

South Africa is a young country; according to StatsSA 2018 mid-year estimates, over 32 million of the population are under the age of 35. However, this is not very well represented within those who sit in the two chambers of parliament (the National Assembly and the National Council of Provinces), which is a huge disservice to our country.

Young people are always relegated to the margins of the SA political discourse and are often essentialized for being young; i.e. the only attribute they seem to possess is their “youth”. We are never spoken about as a group that is concerned with unemployment, poverty and standards of living; rather these issues always have the word “youth” attached to them, as if we can not engage with either of the aforementioned issues without talking about our ages.

This is being perpetuated by political parties and media outlets who insist on engaging in the pageantry of who has the youngest MP. 

The age pageantry has been disappointing, and in the grand scheme of things, I am not sure if it matters. For instance, South African parliament had/has one of the highest proportion of female MPs in the National Assembly in the world, and yet we also have enormous problems, as a society, with gender, women – just look at the numbers on gender-based violence and male on female rape.

Having a representative of a particular demographic does not mean that issues pertaining to that demographic will suddenly get addressed.

We need to start looking at solving issues as a collective, instead of unfairly burdening women and young people with the responsibility of solving these deeply entrenched, structural and societal divisions by themselves.

Unhealthy expectations

It is important that we move towards a point where we can stop obsessing over age and start focussing on the quality of ideas that are being put forward.

Just because someone is young does not necessarily mean that they are creative, robust or lazy and likewise, just because someone is old doesn’t mean that they are wiser.

We should take caution not to hero-worship or overburden the young with unhealthy expectations, just because we think the older generation has failed us.

It will be interesting to see how they navigate through the procedural and due-process aspects of parliament, while also staying committed to their core values rooted in social activism.

Overall, it is a good thing that more and more young people are climbing up the echelons of SA politics. However, I hope that they are utilised to the fullest extent; that their talents are fully harnessed and that they are given the chance to put their ideas into motion. Ideas that will aim to make the country a better place.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of TheSouthAfrican.com.

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