The national Youth Policy defines youth as any persons between the ages of 14 and 35 years. This is a very broad definition of youth. It is a definition that embraces varied categories of the youth, which have been exposed to different socio-political and historical experiences. A 35-year-old youth lived during a period of heightened political conflicts, when he or she was a learner in school, while a 14-year-old youth is growing up in an environment when many of the new reforms and achievements of the struggles are being realized. (National Youth Policy 2000 1996).
The concept youth, remains controversial, it is on the whole a social construction, portraying different meanings to different segments of the population. For some people it portrays a violent undisciplined criminal element in society; for others, it connotes and excluded marginalized segment of the population.
One public perception of youth is their being portrayed as rebels against the political and social order, as destructive and anti-social. During the apartheid period in the 1970s and 80s, this was the general perception of the ruling regime and public opinion as reflected in the media.
The concept вЂњyouthвЂќ was not only linked to black вЂњyouthsвЂќ but also to violence. Responsible adults and law-abiding citizens could not be violent but only irresponsible, deviants; black youths were seen as violent (Seekings 1993). Abdi, Au (1999), provides an extreme analysis of the public view of the youth. He observes that:
In the public mind the youth are being converted into latter day savages: demented, destructive, demonised. The images are archetypal, primal, the stuff of thousand year myths and sweaty nightmares of beasts baying outside the city gates, shadows that swing along the edge of bone-fire, figures watching from a distance, moving their own peculiar rhythm, ready to violate the zones of order and reason.
Within the youth structures, in South Africa no serious attempt has been made to conceptualize вЂњthe youthвЂќ they are dealing with. There has been a rather hurried acceptance of the age range 14 to 35 as youth without taking into account, not only public perception of who the youth are, but also what and why various government departments and sectors have identified as their youth target groups.
For instance the White Paper on Social Welfare (1997), defines a young person as a woman or man aged between 16 to 30 years, while the Child Care Act (1983) defines a child as a male or female aged from 0 to 18 years. Besides age, there are also inconsistencies on rights given to males and females at different ages.
Sociologically, youth denotes and interface between childhood and adulthood. Many organizations consider the ages between 0 and 14 as childhood category, although UNICEF stretches its childhood category up to the age of 18. Within this childhood age segment also falls the adolescent category, which is defined by WHO as falling between the ages of 10 and 19.
Law, public policy and social perception also variously define youth. In many countries in Africa, laws define adulthood as commencing from age 21, although in recent years there has been an attempt to lower this age to 18 years. However, for most countries, 21 remain the age at which many of the trappings of legal adulthood are assumed. No consensus exists though among countries or even within government with respect to the legal age of majority for all purposes. Minimum ages often vary not only sex, but also according to the purpose of the age limit вЂ“ marriage, voting rights, criminal responsibility, military service, access to alcoholic beverage, consent to medical treatment, consent to sexual intercourse, etc.
AdultвЂ™s perception of youth is validated by an ideology of dominance. Adults tend to prescribe the role of the youth, by defining and limiting their responsibilities, opportunities and status. In many countries in Africa, those labeled as вЂњyouthвЂќ are generally perceived as young, or irresponsible, thus providing justification for their being вЂњexcludedвЂќ in key decision-making positions. Youth are perceived as having functional deficiencies and in need of nurturing. In other countries, youth are perceived as delinquents, down class, male and violent. In South Africa for instance, during the apartheid era, youth were largely black and criminals. Thus while some youth never become вЂќyouthвЂќ, some seem unable to out grow the label (Camaroff 1999)
This dominant negative social perception of the youth has been associated with addressing youth issues from a social welfare perspective. The welfare perspective views young people as presenting problems, which need to be solved through the intervention of older people. Young people are reduced to passive objects upon which interventions must act, rather than as active subjects participating in shaping their lives and communities.
Like the general social perception of youth, the social welfare approach tends to be based on a range of negative assumptions about young people. They are at best unable to take care of themselves and at worst responsible for crime and violence.
It is these negative perceptions of youth that are usually responsible for their exclusion in development. It must therefore be appreciated that calling for youth voluntarism by adults is a contradiction in terms. Society, which perceives young people negatively, which down plays their innate capabilities, as architects of their own development, should deconstruct and reconstruct it's conceptual understanding of whom a youth is before, in calls for their participation in voluntary work.