Where have all our role models gone?


Role models play an exceptionally important part in the life of a young person. Young people relate to, admire and, in many cases, imitate their role models during the most impressionable years of their lives.

In South Africa, poor conduct by some among the political elite has left many young people disillusioned by mainstream politics. For others, however, corrupt and self-serving behaviour is viewed with approval and aspiration. This paints a concerning picture for the future of our country.

But is the political elite solely to blame for the lack of positive role models in South Africa? What role is the rest of society playing to ensure that young South Africans develop into better people?

Research shows that humans learn by modelling others, by observing others’ behaviours and attitudes and taking from their experiences. As children grow older, they begin to replicate the actions of parents, teachers, family members and peers. This is also how children identify what is socially acceptable behaviour, and what techniques they need to master in order to reach a specific goal.

Poor conduct by some of SA’s political elite has left many young people disillusioned

The Institute for Security Studies recently conducted a research study to understand young South Africans’ voting behaviour. The study identified how bad behaviour among the political elite, such as engaging in corruption, is having a detrimental impact on what young people view as socially acceptable.

This is clear from a comment made by a 19-year-old student from the Northern Cape, who said that corruption is ‘not really a problem, it’s just the method of corruption… Stealing will always be there; it’s just that instead of stealing a large amount of money at one time; rather steal a little bit over a long period of time.’

Rising levels of corruption, crime and violence have meant that young people are often exposed to bad behaviour from the very people they are meant to look up to and trust. Earlier this year, a study conducted by the Optimus Foundation on Child Abuse, Violence and Neglect in South Africa highlighted that by the time young people are 15 to 17 years old, many of them have already experienced some form of abuse, neglect or been exposed to high rates of violence.

The study was conducted among 9 730 young people between the ages of 15 and 17 in households and schools across South Africa. It found that as many as 23% of the young participants had been exposed to family violence, while 21% had been threatened with violence.

Is the political elite solely to blame for the lack of positive role models in South Africa?

Participants also highlighted their experiences with direct victimisation, such as assault or being robbed. One in five of the respondents reported that they have experienced ‘some form of sexual abuse in their lifetime’ – a figure that exceeds the global average. 

In addition, one in three reported that they had been hit, beaten or kicked by an adult, and 26% of them reported having being robbed. 

This is not a recent phenomenon. 

In a 2009 policy brief by the Medical Research Council, as many as 15% of children reported having parents or a parent that was often too drunk to take care of them. In addition, one in two children had been ‘neglected or witnessed violence against their mothers at home’. In 2008, a National Youth Lifestyle Study (NYLS) conducted by the Centre for Justice and Crime Prevention highlighted that ‘one in six youths had family members who had ever been incarcerated’, while a few reported that they knew of adult family members who had committed crimes that could have seen them running into trouble with the police.

Research continues to show how young people’s exposure to violence often results in them either becoming victims or perpetrators of violence later on in life. Consequently, they are likely to perpetuate the cycle of the criminal behaviour they are exposed to, as they come to believe – from the examples being set – that they can get away with committing a crime.

Young people with positive role models perform better at school and have greater self-esteem

Older people often see the youth as rebellious, lacking in ambition and lazy. They are also seen as the main perpetrators of crimes, and more likely to engage in behaviour such as drug taking and alcohol abuse.

While it is up to young people to choose whether they will emulate good or bad behaviour, viewing them in this light fails to acknowledge the challenges they face, which often includes the people they spend most of their time observing and eventually modelling.

In a country where the many obstacles that young people face could easily condemn them to a life of hopelessness, role models such as parents, teachers, family members and peers play a powerful part in moulding the youth’s attitudes and behaviour.

Good role models guide young people and go a long way to ensure that they are able to overcome obstacles and achieve their goals despite their difficulties. Research has shown that young people with positive role models not only perform better at school, but also have greater self-esteem.

South Africans need to encourage good role models in all walks of life – not only among the political elite, but also from the individuals who young people are exposed to on a day-to-day basis.

Lauren Tracey, Researcher, Governance, Crime and Justice division, ISS Pretoria

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