Use arts and culture to empower the youth

cool: FAKA cover art for the Amaqhawe album. Catch the duos performance on the first day of the ICA Live Art Festival running from September 1-16. Picture: Nick Widmer

Arts and culture events such as the African Renaissance Festival in South Africa, the continental Pan African Youth Festival, and the World Youth Festival can play a critical role in engaging with young people and the issues they have to grapple with in the current conjuncture. Indeed, it is crucial that these events serve as a vehicle for real engagement with youth concerns and that young people’s voices from such occasions are incorporated into policy and programming. When the youth are involved in organising these events, and when there is accountability in how (financial) resources allocated to such festivals are utilised, it is easier for key stakeholders to lend support. 

Youth focused festivals have to go beyond just entertainment and allocate space and time for this cohort of the population to engage in open discussions regarding their concerns. These concerns can be framed by national aspirations and initiatives. In the case of South Africa, these interactions could refer to the relevant priorities as set out in the National Development Plan 2030. In instances where events bring together youth from across the continent, it is strategic to have relevant development priorities of the key bodies such as the African Union as part of the proceedings. It would also be germane to engage with the relevant sustainable development goals and other imperatives shaping the global development agenda.

Using arts and culture as a platform to discuss youth issues can, potentially, result in more meaningful engagement by this cohort of the population. For instance, young people attracted by the entertainment aspect of these festivals may also discover that they have an opportunity to make innovative inputs on how to address challenges they have to contend with. These challenges may include unemployment that youth across the globe continue to face and also the struggles in accessing entrepreneurship opportunities. 

When these festivals bring together leaders from government, local authorities, international organisations and youth formations, they provide an opportune moment for the views of young people to be heard by influential actors.  However, proceedings should go beyond just listening to the youth. There should be serious engagement, refinement and eventual incorporation of young people’s voices into policy and programming on issues that affect them. 

Youth focused festivals bring together thousands of progressive formations and organisations from across the world and in the process young people gain extensive knowledge about, for instance, campaigns against xenophobia, racism and other related form of intolerance. In South Africa, the arts and culture department, in conjunction with other actors, have a critical  role to play in ensuring that young people are actively involved in the process of organising these events. Besides exposing the youth to potential careers in this space, there is an opportunity for young people to acquire useful skills. These include skills in communication with varied individuals, appreciation of diversity, and ability to work in a team. All these are critical for success in today’s interconnected world.

Involving young people in arts and culture festivals is also an opportunity to build an inclusive society. Poor youth, those living in rural areas, and other marginalised groups of young people have to be given an opportunity to participate in these events. A platform for them to be able to articulate their views is critical. Providing these marginalised youth with opportunities they would otherwise not have been able to access propels an inclusive development agenda.

Connected to inclusiveness is that youth focused arts and culture festivals have to be non-partisan, non-sexist and have an agenda that is free of all forms of prejudice. This is key for credibility, for mobilising the support of appropriate formations, and to ensure that the initiatives emanating from discussions at these events resonate with the needs of varied stakeholders – including young people. Indeed, youth development requires a multi-pronged approach. These festivals are one of many vehicles that could be deployed to engage with young people. Role players in the youth development space have an opportunity to strategically take advantage of these events to advance youth development.

Zingani Mwale is a researcher and Hamadziripi Tamukamoyo (Ph.D.) heads the Youth Development Institute of South Africa – – a joint University of Johannesburg and National Youth Development Agency initiative.