Our future is in youths’ hands but what makes them tick?

Young people, in their quest to forge their own history, often prefer not to learn from the past and so run the risk of repeating the mistakes of an earlier era, wites Ryland Fisher.

On Monday we celebrated Human Rights Day with a few thousand others at the Cape Town Festival in the Company’s Garden, in front of Iziko Museum. What kept popping up in my head days later was not the quality of the music or the camaraderie of those who attended.

I kept thinking about a nonchalant comment by one of the young performers, who make music about social issues, that she had to go to Google to find out which holiday we were celebrating. Now that she knew, she wished everyone “Happy Human Rights Day”.

I should not have been surprised. On April 27 a few years ago, I asked one of my daughter’s friends if he knew what public holiday we were celebrating. He did not. After telling him it was Freedom Day, I asked if he knew what Freedom Day was. He said it had to have something to do with Nelson Mandela’s release from prison.

I think these two incidents tell us how young people relate to our history and the things we hold important.

One could argue one of the human rights we today enjoy is a right not to care about where we come from as a country and we have earned the right to celebrate in ignorance.

This is not a view to which I subscribe.

We fail our children if we do not teach them our history and the importance of our national days. History is regarded as important by a certain generation but it should become important to everyone.

Unfortunately, young people, in their quest to forge their own history, often prefer not to learn from the past and so run the risk of repeating the mistakes of an earlier era.

On Human Rights Day I also reflected on what is important to people nowadays in an era of social media and instant gratification.

How do we make sure the Sharpeville events of March 21, 1960 – when police killed people protesting against pass laws – have resonance in 2016 and to people who have no idea what pass laws are?

In June, when we commemorate the 40th anniversary of the police killing of Soweto pupils who protested at being taught in Afrikaans, how do we make sure young people take lessons from what was an international tragedy?

I attended a seminar in Sandton on Wednesday where a presenter spoke about the things that inconvenience young consumers. He said a young person who attended an event recently took exception to having to write his name in an attendance register because he had already registered online. It was a small thing but an indication of how, in today’s society, people have become more concerned about themselves as individuals and less about societal issues.

My sense, and I could well be wrong, is young people care more about the material than about philosophical or historical matters.

This would be important to political parties trying to win new voters in the municipal elections which are supposed to happen before mid-August.

Will political parties be able to successfully campaign on the basis of what they, or their leaders, did in the past? Or will they have to campaign around what they are doing now to improve service delivery at a local level?

The political space has opened in ways we have not seen before in South Africa.

There are many people who still claim to support the ANC, despite all its troubles, but in numerous ways, that support is based on what the ANC did for the country in the past. I don’t think the DA has done enough to convince die-hard ANC supporters – and there are many – that this is a good time to change allegiance.

The EFF has mastered the art of gaining maximum publicity at key moments but there are many who are uncertain what its true policies are.

But the big question is how young people – mistakenly referred to as born-frees – are going to vote. Will they side with their parents, who will probably not change voting patterns, or will they make up their own minds?

When I was involved with the Cape Youth Congress many years ago we had a slogan: “Freedom is in our hands.”

In many ways, the future of our country is in the hands of the youth, but here I go again with my historical lessons, which will probably be ignored.

(First published as a Thinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus on Saturday, 26 March 2016)