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Country analysis > South Africa Last update: 2020-04-07  

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4. Methodology for Youth Participation in Voluntary Work
The mobilization of youth into voluntary work is an important strategy of empowering young people and affirming their centrality in national development programs. Poverty reduction programs could benefit immeasurably through the engagement of youth as an additional human capital. The proper selection of participants and the manner in which they are selected and managed will largely determine the success and sustainability their continued participation in voluntary work.

Voluntarism not Coercion

Experience in a number of countries in Africa, points out towards a tendency of using young people largely as a tool for political control. This was particularly the case during the first decade of Africa’s independence when the ruling party functionaries as largely purveyors of the ruling party ideology used such youth movements as the Malawi Young Pioneers, the Ghana Young Pioneers, The Zambia National Youth Service, and the Boys Brigades of Botswana.

Malawi under the dictatorial rйgime of Banda in the 1970 to the 80s perhaps displayed the most blatant abuse of young people as instruments of political control. Under Banda’s regime the young pioneers, whom it was believed were carrying out voluntary work, became extremely unpopular among the general population for their sometimes ruthless and coercive manner in mobilizing local communities for development goals and supporting the ruling party. They were partially renown in the country for their blind appeals to the population (through the combination of paternalism and sanctimonious exhortations) for “Unity, Obedience, Loyalty and Discipline” (Malawi congress party four corner stones), as a means of creating rural stability for the intensification of commodity production (Mkandawire 1984).

Those who failed to follow these exhortations, such as Jehovah’s witness were not only denied access to public services (turned off busses, denied access to markets, health clinics) but often received corporal punishment from the young pioneers and many were forced into detention or exile with the tacit support of the ruling regime.

As Banda put it in support of the Young Pioneers excesses “Witnesses have no right against young pioneers who feel disposed to beat them, if they go to the police, but is the police not government? If they do not get satisfaction from the police, they go to the district commissioner, is the district commissioner not government? They go to the chief, is the chief not government?” (Williams 1978 Malawi; p 349)

This was clearly not voluntarism. While these excesses of using young people as instruments for political control, may be seen as extreme, there is a danger even in the current democratic environment of South Africa that youth voluntarism could be abused by political interests groups to further their own ends. To avoid this; it might be necessary to encourage civil society organizations to take a lead in the mobilization of young people for voluntary work. On the basis of experience gleaned from various African countries the following should be considered in the mobilization of youth for voluntary work.

Clearly Defined Target Groups and Activities

A task force or an NGO responsible for the mobilization of young people for voluntary work should clearly define its target groups, by age, education as well as location. It is also critical to identify the entry point for the mobilization of young people. The following entry points should be considered: community structures, (CBO’s, traditional initiation institutions, churches, mosques, youth clubs etc…) academic institutions (schools, universities, technikons etc…), youth NGOs etc…

Clearly Defined Activities or Programmes

Local structures such as CBO’s or schools, universities as well as young people, etc… should be given the opportunity to define not only the types of activities or programmes they would want to be engaged in, but also the modus operandi of the voluntary work. More critically local structures and the young people that might be involved in voluntary work must perceive their engagement as likely to provide some utility either to them as individuals or their immediate community.

Incentives in Youth Voluntary Work

It is important to appreciate that voluntary work in Africa, is not new. In many communities in Africa villagers have risen to the occasion in times of disasters; the young and the old are regularly mobilized to participate in communal construction of roads, bridges, schools etc… The driving force for participation is the belief that the activity will be of direct to them as a community. They perceive their contribution as part of their responsibility to the “extended” family community.

This spirit may not be in existence in rather complex communities where the level of solidarity is not as strong as at the village level where familial relationships exist. The absence of such solidarity coupled with limited and deteriorating livelihood opportunities, most young people particularly in urban areas would require additional incentives to participate in voluntary work.

Those responsible for mobilization of youth should therefore carefully explore the types of incentives that could be built into the voluntary program to ensure that young people, not only make an optional contribution, but also that they do not perceive authorities as abusing their labor and intellectual capacities.

It is therefore critical that voluntary work is perceived as providing some utility to young people. Voluntary work should be structured and be perceived as a learning environment for young people. Young people should exit from voluntary work, having acquired not only knowledge and skills, but also some form of recognition. Voluntary work should be structured in such a way that it becomes a conduit for new livelihood opportunities for young people. Voluntary work should be structured in such a manner that it provides an opportunity for young people to build positive relationships with adults, and enable them to identify their life goals and change themselves to achieve these goals.

What Contributions can Youth make to Voluntary Work in South Africa

Before identifying what young people can contribute to voluntary work, it is critical to acknowledge that young people have a contribution to make. It is also critical to acknowledge that young people cannot be developed by outsiders. As the government explores the concept of youth voluntarism, the government and civil society organization should avoid perceiving young people as mere targets of the new concept, or perceiving them as instruments in the popularization of the concept.

Voluntary work itself should be designed, managed and implemented by young people themselves. There is need to acknowledge that young people intuitively know that they need and will often succeed if they are helped along the way. The issue being raised here is one of action; young people acting upon themselves rather than being acted upon; of young people being agents of change in their own lives rather than being by standers in the development process (MacDonald et al 2000:173).

What is required is to explore ways in what young people can be facilitated to maximize their own creative potential, affirm their own creative potential, and affirm their own power to create their own norms and modes of voluntary work and development.

While there are a number of areas where young people could be involved as volunteers, for illustrative purposes, this paper would like to cite three critical development related areas where youth could make positive contribution through offering voluntary services. These areas identified are literacy, environment and health.

Youth as Literacy Volunteers

Literate youth can be utilized as volunteers in literacy campaigns. UNESCO has identified the inadequacy of trained adult educators as one of the major bottlenecks in the eradication of illiteracy (UNESCO 1970:75). Young people, the majority of whom are literate, should serve as relatively cheaper to remunerate educators.

Young people could particularly play the role of volunteers in literacy campaigns at the family level. The family based literacy approach, is particularly useful because it could help reduce problems associated with dropouts and relapses due to lack of follow-ups. Young people residing within the same community as their parents and other members of the extended family could be recruited and trained in literacy education. This approach is more cost effective than other approaches, where adults are used because the youth literacy volunteer does not have to travel to an outside community, the educated youth gets satisfaction by helping his or her own kith and kin.

From the illiterates’ own perspective, being taught by one of their own cushions the stigma often associated by illiterate adults exposing their illiteracy to people outside their communities (Mkandawire and Siamwiza1997).

Youth Voluntarism in Environmental Preservation

The call for youth voluntarism in environmental preservation is being made in the context of agenda 21 discussion of the Rio Summit. Chapter 25 of Agenda 21 calls on all governments to involve the youth in the protection of the environment and the promotion of economic and social development.

Governments have been urged to involve youth in environmental conservation, not only for the simple reason that they are the pool of human resource that needs to be tapped, but also because, there is recognition that young people could bring unique perspectives to the debate on environmental conservation and sustainable development.

Young people are often victims of environmental degradation and the abuse of natural resources by adults. For instance in many rural communities in South Africa increasingly women are spending more time in search of fuel wood. A number of such female youth and children are usually given this chore as a daily responsibility. For most youth and children, this interferes with their schooling and makes it increasingly difficult for some parents to send their female children to school.

In a number of countries in Africa young people are already engaged in environmental conservation. In Uganda Tanzania, Kenya, Zimbabwe Lesotho and Malawi young people are responsible for planting millions of trees with high survival rates.

The youth plant them for fuel wood, fruit, folder and timber. The youth are also involved in uprooting alien trees and the construction of water and soil conservation structures. While the same can be said of South Africa, no conscious effort so far has been made to mobilize youth as a strategy in environmental conservation. The almost 6 million unemployed youth in South Africa are a critical mass that could contribute significantly to current environmental conservation efforts in the country.

School leavers should for instance be requested to volunteer there between schools to college time to contribute to environmental conservation activities. As literate persons they have a fairly good understanding why conservation of their environment is critical for the sustainable development of their country

Youth Voluntarism in HIV/AIDS Campaigns

In the wake of the increasing HIV/AIDS infection in South Africa, there is acknowledgement that, new awareness campaigns, care and as well as mitigation strategies should be explored. Young people have in the past 3 years been centrally engaged in HIV/AIDS awareness campaigns; notably in KwaZulu Natal and the Free State where young people who have been tested as sero- positive have emerged as ambassadors of positive living. These young ambassadors are not simply engaged in awareness campaigns, but they are also involved in counseling and the promotion of support groups among those who are living with the virus. These young people see themselves as providing a genuine contribution to society, which so often looks down upon those who are living with the virus.

This programme has also emerged as a model of good practice in other countries in Southern Africa, notably in Zambia, Malawi and Botswana where young ambassadors of positive living through the support of the Commonwealth Youth Programme have established their own networks and are beginning to talk to each other and share experiences on positive living at the regional level. The utilization of young people as volunteers in HIV/AIDS programs, is not only a good practice, as young people are one’s who are most at risk, but also because young people have an informed perspective on their health needs and problems. Young people have the capacity to communicate messages to their peers in a style and language that is attractive and accessible to them.

It is particularly important that efforts are made to encourage tertiary institution students to participate in voluntary work in the HIV/AIDS campaigns, not only because this is a pool of intellectual and human underutilized capital, but also because tertiary institutions do not have clear policies on the subject. Involvement of students would in a sense begin to set a stage for internal institutional reflection on what needs to be done within each campus in addressing the HIV/AIDS pandemic.

The involvement of tertiary institutions as volunteers in HIV/AIDS campaigns could provide a new national dimension in their approaches; from their own point of views, as learners and “learned” people plus their own credibility in the eyes of their audiences, particularly among other young people who might not have the same level of education as they have, tertiary students could serve as a powerful tool in stimulating the desired behavioral change. They could provide powerful advice on the way in which the government, NGOs and other institutions could more effectively use existing limited resources promoting HIV/AIDS educational campaigns

Tertiary institutions have after all the necessary expertise to mobilize and train students in the broad area of HIV/AIDS, including peer counseling, as well as research that might be required in any voluntary work in this area. Students in such disciplines as health, sciences and social work could be encouraged to participate as volunteers in HIV/AIDS educational awareness and counseling services. Such students would, not only be offering a very much-needed service to the community, but also they would be acquiring new knowledge that could enhance their professional competencies.

Given the high levels of HIV/AIDS infections particularly among young people it is recommended that tertiary institutions not only develop policies to inform how they intend to address the problem, but also how they could directly link up with current government and NGO efforts in addressing the growing levels of the infection.

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