The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child includes children’s right to participation in processes that affect them. In this article we caution that in order to give real content to participation, it is necessary to understand what participation is and to acknowledge the problematic nature of the concept. We then demonstrate, by considering a number of international and African studies, the kinds of issues that have undermined the implementation of participatory initiatives for both adults and children. Subsequently we explore the way in which participation has become a central tenet of cooperative developmental government through what has, especially at the local level, become known as governance. We argue that for these opportunities to become a reality and for citizens to benefit from the governance model, a strong and organised civil society that moves beyond the limitations of confrontational protest politics and engages with the state without becoming co-opted, is the way forward. Increased inefficiency on the part of local governance structures has led to increasing disillusionment by citizens, especially younger people. The final section of the paper deals with this disaffection through a focus group interview with a small number of Grade 12 learners from Grahamstown/Rhini. The interviews reveal a level of cynicism and lack of interest in participation in governance structures, such as ward meetings, among the learners interviewed.
Young people should be at the forefront of global change and innovation. Empowered, they can be key agents for development and peace. If, however, they are left on society’s margins, all of us will be impoverished. Let us ensure that all young people have every opportunity to participate fully in the lives of their societies (Kofi Annan, former United Nations Secretary General).