In South Africa, when a policy is being tabled in Parliament, there can be multiple drafts of the policy sent out for public commentary and participation. This is the case with the National Health Insurance policy, which has being discussed and drafted since 2012. I was interested in looking at the ways in which the youth was participating in this process, and to interrogate their feelings and reflections on their participatory actions.
The paper explores the expanded application of the Nancy Tuana’s systemic silencing idea as relevant to young people, as such the paper is an example of how to apply relevant theories to different but appropriate situations.
This contribution is based of a case study unpacking the participation of young people in public policy making and strengthening in South Africa, with specific reference to the NHI commentary process.
To this end, the case study assessed key texts and informants involved in qualitative in-depth interviews with a majority of the 20 contributors to the Young People’s Recommendations (YPR) on South Africa’s NHI White Paper. Triangulating between these sources and other key texts and accounts, the study unveiled the important influences behind the quality and extent of youth participation in public policy.
Young people in Africa and abroad are perceived as complacent and lacking initiative, they are seen as incompetent and despondent about their future(s). The first finding is that this is untrue. The respondents I interviewed sought to participate, but faced challenges which did not deter them from making one of the only publicly accessible comments on the NHI white paper representing youth interests . This was the case because the organizations they were part of preferred sending senior members to deliberation rather than youth members, but also because, even if they were sometimes invited, they were invited only as lip service. They were tokenized, and people would give them very little attention and opportunity to contribute effectively to social change and health policy.
I leaned on feminist research in exploring the concept of systemic silencing which provides the foundation for an expanded application of feminism as a tool to oppress young men, women and youth who count as marginalised members of society and policy deliberation.
The second finding was that, when young people involve themselves in these processes, they are not taken seriously. There are perceptions and biases concerning young people that led to them not being taken seriously when trying to participate. No one is interested in hearing the youth because they think young people are inexperienced. As a result, my respondents felt that their voices were never heard, even though many of them were experts in their relevant fields.
The last finding was that the term youth is misleading and inconsistent. It includes people from ages 12 to 35, which means there can be a huge age gap between members of “the youth”. A 12 year old and a 30 year old trying to participate is not the same thing.
The main conclusion was that these perceptions of young people and youth are counterproductive, and they prevent them from participating. Because this policy talks about their future, young people should be included, listened to and encouraged to participate. We need to recognize that young people have different capabilities and that binary categories of young and old do not reflect reality accurately. This is very important because, if young people are not allowed to participate, there will be a rejection of the policies implemented for them. They will turn to other, less savory, methods of participation and there will be revolts.
I conducted semi-structure interviews with 11 participants, who were part of a youth wing of a health organisation.
The main limitation is that the attempts at participating for the respondents dated 1-2 years backs, which meant there could be recollection bias in their memories.