Youth engagement and active citizenship is more than casting a vote.
Abigail Kemper
September 28, 2022
Open Cities Lab (OCL) hosted a webinar on 25 June 2022 with Youth Lab ZA, Africa Matters Initiative, and Young Urbanists to unpack what youth engagement and active citizenship looks like in South Africa. Anele Ngcoya hosted the discussion with three inspiring activists from three organisations: Dimpho Lekgeu (Youth Lab ZA), Roland Postma (Young Urbanists), and Qondisa Sibeko (Africa Matters Initiative); watch webinar replay here.

According to data from Stats SA (Q1: 2022), of the 40,0 million working age population more than half (51,6%) were youth (15–34 years). This means that in South Africa, there are more than 20 million youths (15–34 years old) that have a role in contributing to our economy, shaping our public spaces and inspiring change. How are they doing so? Youth engagement and active citizenship is more than casting a vote in general and local elections.

OCL, Youth Lab, Young Urbanists and Africa Matters Initiative have different spheres of influence but share an interest in seeing improved youth participation in community and civic spaces. We know the youth have a range of platforms to speak out and share their ideas. Probably more than any generation before; but is anyone listening when it comes to making policy, shaping city spaces or creating economic opportunities? This is what we learned about youth engagement and active citizenship in South Africa.

We need to make space and time to listen more

Dimpho explained that, at Youth Lab ZA, they make a concerted effort to make space and time to listen to the youth. Their engagements are centred around young people — not only as beneficiaries but also as having a role to play in problem solving and solution implementation. There is still a need to build programmes that are agile enough to respond to and incorporate the feedback we get in our engagements. There are a range of channels of communication that are available for the youth to make their voices heard, there is a need to share and manage these channels in a way that is accessible and relatable to the South African youth.

Qondisa Sibeko reiterated the need for capacitation in Africa as well as how the Africa Matters Initiative combines education, training and resources to capacitate youth tools for impact. We can all improve our active listening or communication skills when it comes to youth participation in community and civic engagement. If active citizenship means participating in the co-creation of our public spaces, economies and communities, we need to make space and time to invite young people to participate and listen to what they have to say.

We can have immediate impact if we start local

Because government planning processes have long lead times and implementation cycles, the strategy of Young Urbanists is to focus on local government communication channels and action. Roland highlighted that at the local level, cities can take leadership in responding to issues such as Climate Change and other immediate development needs where national governments are likely to be limited by bureaucratic processes. .

Qondisa also reminded us that youth engagement at the local level can be horizontal as opposed to vertical. For example, horizontal engagement can happen within communities, mobilising solutions from within, such as planting urban and community gardens. Vertical engagement such as voting, participating in policy making and fallists movements are equally important and are often presented as the most accessible and effective civic engagement processes/tools. However, horizontal engagement at the local level can spread and be replicated in many communities, and it can make use of available resources.

We need to work together

Even if youth are invited to give input, or take initiative in public participation processes, many municipalities are not able to use feedback. Organisations like Young Urbanists, Youth Lab, Open Cities Lab and Africa Matters Initiative need to work together. Roland said, “It is important for civic organisations to bridge the gap”.

Using digital tools and platforms to listen and be heard

There has been a noticeable shift to digital means of active citizenship in recent years. The fallist movement was online, the power of viral Hashtags such as #feesmustfall allowed the youth to have a collective voice. Qondisa pointed out that in history, the youth of 1976 didn’t know exactly what was going to happen but they joined as they saw it happening. The same can happen on digital platforms if a movement, campaign, or organisation does not have a clear and actionable call to action..

A call to action (CTA) is a really important part of all social media campaigns. There are two rhetorical questions and only one call to action in this article. Did you see them?

Here are some digital tools that you can use to solicit more meaningful engagement in a call to action:

  1. 📢Likes and Shares are the best known way of creating content that goes viral. Sharing between digital platforms and in whatsapp can be very effective in spreading your message.
  2. 💌Comments and DMs: Social media platforms have made it really easy to share and like content, and asking users to do more is hopeful. But if you have the capacity to have conversations with people you engage online, invite people to tell you why this is important to them? Invite them to comment or to send you a direct message and be sure to respond.
  3. 🗓️Register/RSVP for our next event: If you’re hosting the event on Zoom or MeetUp, or Twitter, you can use the registration links provided by the platform. If you’re having it in person or the date and details are still to be confirmed, create a simple google form to capture everyone’s contact information. All you need is a free google account.
  4. 📝Survey You can also use a simple google form to ask more specific questions with multiple choice answers or long open ended questions.
  5. ✊Sign this petition: You can use any of these free platforms to create a petition. But knowing where to submit your petition afterwards and how to communicate the outcomes are very important.

Remember that all personal information you collect from people you engage with must be treated responsibly. See POPI Act 10 steps to be compliant. We will publishing some useful checklists and templates to make this easier for you.

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