Reconceptualization of the youth concept in South Africa through improved understanding of contemporary challenges and expectations

Research Paper (undergraduate), 2012

18 Pages



The 21st Century has experienced an immense youth bulge, meaning persons in transition from childhood to adulthood now constitute the largest interest group in most nations. In addition to this, youth face numerous challenges which governments are failing to find solutions for. Most prominent among the challenges are lack of employment opportunities, poor education and skills development, limited availability of social amenities and facilities such as recreational parks. The definition of youth varies from one state or society to another. In addition, various international conventions have defined youth differently. This paper traces the youth concept taking into consideration age, transition, categories and how international conventions articulated it. A broad range of sources of literature were used to develop this paper. Having a clear explanation of youth is likely to help develop policies for eradicating the challenges that modern day youth face and also effectively implement them .

Keywords: Challenges, expectations, reconceptualization, youth bulge, youth concept


This paper aims to discuss challenges and expectations in order to support initiatives that promote young people as agents of their own, and their communities, development; that shift the social perception of the role of young people in public life; that give young people access to influence; and to create a unique national intervention to develop a cohort of exceptional young people working together to drive public innovation. More than half of the world's population is under 25 years, the largest demographic group in human history. 80% live in developing countries which bring an additional strain on insufficient resources, jobs, lack of opportunities to engage or voice grievances, increased risks of extremism and conflicts. Demographic studies by Population Action International in its 2003 report reveal that 35-40 percent of the population is relatively young and the bulk of them are living in urban areas. The Population Data Sheet (2009) report projected that, by 2011, world population would reach 7 billion and that global south would be the highest contributor to this global population boom. More young people means more strain on local institutions which cause grievances, especially when expectations (realistic or not) cannot be met. Globalization raised expectations and apprehensions for the socially excluded. Young people are not adequately prepared to lead and advocate for peaceful change and if structures fail to give youth opportunities to voice grievances peacefully, the rational to react violently increases. In this regard, there is a link between youth bulge, war, genocides and terrorism.

The study gives a clear comprehension of the contemporary youth challenges expectations and opportunities. Various youth concept will be discussed in the study such as youth bulge, and youth definitions. One of the keys to understanding youth challenges and lies in understanding their physical, psychological, and sociological dimensions. Since the mid-70’s the scientific communities have studied the concept of youth on complex issues such as age, race and culture. The accumulation of empirical evidence has also resulted in a body of knowledge that spans several ideas to which this study supplements. In this regard today’s young people are overall the best educated generation of youth in history. However, for many young people, the transition to adulthood is slowed down by several challenges which modern day governments have failed to provide. The paper discusses youth concept on a complex basis ranging from youth definitions, challenges and expectations.

Defining youth: from a global to a South African perspective

Dzimiri (2011) argues that, “central to discussing the plight of the youth is the need to define who they are”. The idea of youth or adolescence as a stage of life does not exist in every culture. Some sociologists and anthropologists believe that this indicates there is no such thing as youth - that this is merely a construction developed to meet social needs. Some believe that there is a stage called youth, but it is treated very differently by different cultures, and young people will behave according to the expectations of their particular culture. Age has always been used as a yardstick for definition. Age groups between 15-241, though not universally applicable to all contexts, have been adopted as the international paradigm for defining youth, according to the 1986 United Nations Children’ Fund(UNICEF). While in most cases there has been a wide argument on basis of classification of youth on children basis, this brings complications since the definition of youths is also distinguished from children. Notwithstanding this, UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) defines a ‘child’ as everyone under the age of 18 years. The same age demarcation is also applicable to the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (ACRWC), UNDP (2006). However the African Youth Charter, youth or young people are defined as every person between the ages of 15 and 35 years. As noted by McIntyre (2003), the definition proffered by the UNCRC and the ACRWC equates youth to children and in that case, reference to youth as children in this paper is no coincidence.

In contrast to the above highlighted youth related definitions, De Waal (2002a) demonstrates that the definition of youth is a social construct, to the extent that a number of factors like space, society and time need to be factored in. In most African countries the term youth is usually associated with societal roles. No matter how old you might be, if you cannot perform some certain duties, you will be still regarded as a youth. While marriage acts as a symbol of unity between two families, most African traditional societies have regarded marriage as a yardstick to determine maturity in a person. This is true on basis of traditional age regimental systems where youth sleep in youth rooms. Therefore these various intermixed approaches to answering the question of youth, so do challenges exist. It is true to a greater extent that youth challenges which European youths are facing is different from African, American, or Asian youths. Similarly, (UNDP, 2006) argues that the transition from childhood to adulthood which is marked the by rites of passage in the case of Africa, has been used as a referral point. Therefore the above argument scales down the definition of youth as the period between childhood and adulthood.

A study by (Ellis, 1999) portrays that gender related definitions should also be factored in taking into consideration that boys and girls might be young in a completely different such that a universal definition cannot be coined. There is a view that for boys, the world opens for them as they are deemed man enough to take care of themselves, while for girls the world closes and becomes a restricted space in and outside the homes (UNDP, 2006). Therefore the world is said to expand for boys and contract for girls, which those with a feminist orientation regard as gender inequality (UNDP, 2006). From a feminist standpoint, there are huge gaps which exist between male youth and female youth since male youth are regarded as pillars of development while female youth are just regarded as objects. Talking about lack of clarity on the definition of youth, De Waal (2002a) posits that this has even led to ignoring their position in society.

Enthusiastically, Ashford (2007) claims that Africa can achieve positive demographic dividends if the youth are to be natured to become a accountable generation. Furthermore youth should not be viewed as threats to society, since they may become an engine of economic growth. Contrary to (Ashford 2007) standpoint, the Population Action International (2003) shows that there is a symbiotic relationship between “youth bulge”2 and civil unrest. High proportion of young people in the total population of a country if not properly checked threatens the very fabric of human security (UNDP, 2006). Recent developments in the Arab Africa (Egypt and Tunisia respectively) bears testimony that, even if with education, high expectations for jobs and better life can result in youth bulge related violence. Frustrations, repression and economic dissatisfaction are viewed as a “sensitive barometer for crisis” in Arab African (Knighton, 2008; 300).

Given the above highlighted contestations of the definition of youth, South Africa as a nation has its own definition. With some 39% of South African society aged between 14 and 35 years3, young people clearly comprise a substantial part of South African society. The democratisation of South African society has offered many new opportunities and challenges to previously disadvantaged groups (National Youth Commission, 1997). Young women and men are, in particular, recognised as a vital resource whose future prospects are inextricably tied to that of the country as a whole. As President Mandela put it in May 1994, "youth are the valued possession of the nation. Without them there can be no future. Their needs are immense and urgent. They are the centre of reconstruction and development", (Mandela State of Nation Address, 1994). The National Youth Policy is directed toward young males and females aged from 14 to 35 years. It should be recognised that the age range of men and women defined as being youthful is very broad. Thus, this definition indicates the primary target group, without excluding those who may share similar circumstances. Whilst this transition period is characterised by youthful energy, enthusiasm, ambition, creativity and promise, it can also be influenced by uncertainty, fear and alienation. Finally, when defining a young person it is important to recognise the broader policy environment and the views of other policy documents. The White Paper on Social Welfare (1997), for example, defines a young person as aged between 16 and 30 years. Whilst the Child Care Act (1983) defines a child as a male or female aged from 0 to 18 years.

The National Youth Commission Act (1996), which directs the work of the National Youth Commission, uses the definition contained in this policy (i.e. 14 to 35 years of age). Clearly, there is a need for harmonisation across policies on these matters. The issue of age and the rights given to males and females at certain ages also contains apparent inconsistencies. On a South African perspective, youth therefore is a male or a female aged between 14 and 35 years. Despite all these disparities in definition, this paper adopts the South African definition of the youth which defines the youth as those between the ages of 14-35 years. Youth constitutes a majority therefore implicating the total composition of the entire population.


1 See also the UN-General Assembly (A/RES/50/81), The World Program of Action for Youth in the Year 2000 and Beyond, 1995.

2 The theory of Youth Bulge was first coined by the Gunnar Heinsorhn a Germany scientists in the mid-1990s. Youth bulge refers to largest number of youth percentage population within a country.

3 Based on the 1995 October Household Survey, see p. 4, The situation of youth in South Africa, Community Agency for Social Enquiry (CASE) (1996)

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Reconceptualization of the youth concept in South Africa through improved understanding of contemporary challenges and expectations
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F. Chiyemura (Author)J. Francis (Author), 2012, Reconceptualization of the youth concept in South Africa through improved understanding of contemporary challenges and expectations, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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