Narratives of Contradiction: South African Youth and Post-Apartheid Governance
University of Kansas
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South Africa’s heralded democratic transition digressed from its 1994 euphoric optimism to a current state of public discontent. This stems from rising unemployment, persistent structural inequality, and a disappointment in the African National Congress-led government’s inability to bring true social and economic transformation to fruition. While some scholars attribute this socioeconomic and political predicament to the country’s former regimes, others draw close correlations between the country’s post-apartheid predicament, ANC leadership, and the country’s official adoption of neoliberal economic policies in 1996. Central to this post-euphoric moment is the country’s Born-Free generation, particularly Black youth, coming of political age in an era of supposed political freedom, social equality, and economic opportunities. But recent student movements evidence young people’s disillusionment with the country’s democratic transition. Such disillusionment is not unfounded, considering the 35% youth unemployment rate and questionable standards in primary education. Compared to their urban peers, rural youth are at an even greater disadvantage, far removed from urban resources and opportunities. Against this post-apartheid moment, my research investigates the political perceptions of rural South African youth. Drawing from ethnographic fieldwork in the rural Eastern Cape Province, I find youth’s political perceptions embedded in themes of employment, dependence, and political performance. Youth use these concepts, not only to interpret the post-apartheid state and frame their government expectations but also to make sense of their surrounding socioeconomic environments. Drawing from scholarship on neoliberal governmentality and considering the post-apartheid state’s contradictory nature, I argue that young South Africans’ interpretations of their immediate social realities draw from a deeper lying neoliberal logic. This logic places economic and social responsibility upon individuals, celebrates independence from the state, and applauds self-reliance, individualism, and autonomy. Additionally, when considering the country’s political context, youth view themes of self-reliance and individuality as logical alternatives to politics. Arguably, the country’s political landscape has allowed for a deeper entrenchment of a neoliberal logic that downplays the importance of political involvement and civil engagements.
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