Purpose: Twenty-seven years into South Africa’s democracy much has changed politically. But for many people, and for youth in particular, the economic inequalities that characterised the apartheid era continue to affect their life chances, despite the promise of equal opportunities for all. This reality influences the perceptions that young people hold about their lives and their futures. This study sought to compare the views of young people growing up during the transition to democracy with those who were born in a democratic South Africa to understand whether youth perspectives have changed over time.
Originality: While much has been written about the lives of young people, their perceptions, and their prospects at different points in time over the past 27 years, there are few studies that compare the lived reality and views that young people held at the turn of democracy to those of young people today. This article addresses this gap.
Methodology: A comparative qualitative approach, in which primary data collected in 2017-2018 is compared to published data, treated as archival material, from a letter-writing competition conducted in 1996, allowed us to assess youth perspectives on their own lives and future prospects across two time periods. Similar subject themes were explored with young people across the two time-periods to determine if young people’s views had changed over the intervening years, with the maturing democracy and socio-economic changes that have taken place.
Findings: Although there have been structural and political changes over time, the views expressed by young people are remarkably similar with evidence of resilience and continued youthful optimism. Nevertheless, youth today show a keen awareness of how promises of equal opportunities have not been delivered. Unlike the earlier youth generation, which looked forward to the prospect of living in a society freed from apartheid, the youth of today express frustration at the pace of economic progress and opportunities for development.
Implications: Periodic, qualitative studies engaging a biographical approach are important to understand the youth milieu of the time and can be important barometers for policy makers to take into account.
Keywords: youth, comparative study, youth voice, youth agency, society in transition