The late former South African president, Nelson Mandela, once said, “The youth of today are the leaders of tomorrow." For Stellenbosch University (SU) student, Emily O'Ryan, this statement strongly rings true.
O'Ryan, who is an Honours student in Political Science, believes that in order for the youth of today to be leaders in the future, they should be given more opportunities to become involved in politics and even have their own platform in the form of a youth parliament.
She recently pushed this idea in a column writing competition for the online news platform Netwerk24, and won first prize for her opinion article, “Give us a youth parliament".
The competition was part of a collaboration between SU's Transformation Office and Netwerk24 as part of a Youth Month initiative for students in South Africa.
O'Ryan visited the Western Cape Provincial Parliament in June this year with a group of 56 high school learners who were part of the Rotary Adventures into Citizenship Programme*. The group's host and Deputy Speaker of the Western Cape Parliament, Beverley Schaefer, promised them that her office would be bringing the youths' dream of a youth parliament to fruition.
This promise struck a nerve with O'Ryan and she believes that Schaefer's office should be held accountable to this.
“The call for a youth parliament was to affirm the contribution that young people can make to help change the country. I've watched many young people get tired. I don't think enough independence is given to our young people. There is a lot of decisions made where we as young people are at the receiving end of it. If you give us more to do, those in power would see that we're actually capable of doing it," says O'Ryan.
O'Ryan also believes that being aware of your environment, taking on opportunities to change the status quo and making a difference should become part of student life across the country, instead of following the same traditional pattern to just get a piece of paper saying that you are now qualified and have graduated.
She says that how young people are raised and how the schooling system teaches our youth to just absorb and accept what is around them as the truth is problematic in the long term.
“Most students come to Stellenbosch University to collect a piece of paper, attend classes, write tests, sit in these four walls and then they leave with a piece of paper saying that they have graduated. Trying to tackle the big issues in South Africa is not always the only way to make a difference. If more students start at their institutions and communities where they are at, they are taking small steps in helping to eventually change the larger issues affecting youth."
O'Ryan grew up in Crawford, Cape Town, with two siblings almost 14-years older than her who she says always engaged with her as if she was at their peer level. This constant engagement with her brothers also influenced and shaped her passion for politics and her interest in social causes from a young age.
“I think many young people feel that they are inherently undermined when they approach others about the issues that they are going through and I think that's why a youth parliament is so important."
O'Ryan says she didn't initially think she would win the Netwerk24 competition, because most of the articles that she writes for her Honours course and other SU and external media outlets, tend to be very serious and argumentative.
She always had a sense for seeking justice and helping others, while in high school. However, she never thought she would be studying Political Science and always thought she would do something in Business or Public Relations instead.
O'Ryan's unconscious passion for justice and politics led her to SU instead of studying Business at the University of Cape Town, where she was also accepted.
Her plans after completing her Honours studies include travelling more and working in governance in the Western Cape.
“Our education system and unemployment rate is in a crisis. There is so much opportunity to make a difference in South Africa, and I hope to be part of that."
Read O'Ryan's winning article here:
More on the Rotary Adventures into Citizenship Programme:
*Rotary International is an international service organisation whose stated purpose is to bring together business and professional leaders in order to provide humanitarian service and to advance goodwill and peace around the world. As part of their work, they initiated the Rotary Adventures into Citizenship Programme aimed at Grade 11 and 12 learners who have shown great leadership potential in their respective Interact Clubs and schools. The programme promotes the avenues of citizenship that leaders may pursue after school. During the first week of the winter school holidays, about 50 learners from across the country are hosted in Cape Town to share in a week of fellowship and development. The group of learners also tour Cape Town's major establishments that are vital to the success of cities and towns. The group visits Parliament, the High Court and the Civic Centre where they learn how laws are made and upheld, and how a town functions to deliver multiple services to a diverse and wide spread community.