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Hot Prospects, Cold Facts: National Survey of South African Youth

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This report summarizes the key findings from the largest ever national survey of South African teenagers on their attitudes towards issues such as sex, gender, and substance abuse, as well as their aspirations for the future. This nationally representative random sample of 2,000 South Africans aged 12-17 years shows that young South Africans are overwhelmingly optimistic about the future of South Africa and filled with the usual aspirations and ambitions of youth. However, most young South Africans fear they might not live to realize their dreams and that South Africa’s future prospects may be overwhelmed by the HIV/AIDS epidemic. The personal risk of HIV/AIDS, as well as it’s impact on friends, families and the country’s future are a major preoccupation for young people.

More than 40% of South Africans are under 15 years of age. These young South Africans are at great risk of HIV infection. At the current rate of infection more than 50% of South Africans under 15 today could die of AIDS-related causes in the next five to ten years. On the one hand, most young South Africans say they are happy with their lives, but at the same time they are also struggling with very serious issues. The AIDS epidemic is a particular source of fear and concern. While almost all young people say they accept responsibility for protecting themselves from the virus, many still do not know important facts about the disease and how it is prevented or treated. Moreover, many sexually active teens are making unsafe choices and hold attitudes that put them at risk for HIV infection.

While young South Africans generally spend large parts of their time doing the things young people do everywhere – watching television, listening to the radio or “hanging out” with friends – poverty is a major factor in the lives of a large proportion of young South Africans. About one third of young South Africans are living in households with less than R1,000 ($130) income per month. Approximately one third of black respondents reported going hungry and many are living in homes that are overcrowded and lack basic amenities such as electricity and sewerage. Most respondents said that if they had money they would spend it on food.

Although the risk of HIV/AIDS looms large in the lives of young South Africans, 65% indicate that they are worried about their personal safety. Crime is the greatest concern (72%), but 62% of respondents cited the fear of sexual or physical abuse as a concern. Many young South Africans are sexually active. About one third of boys and girls aged 12-17 have had sexual intercourse. One in five (18%) of this group reported having their first sexual experience at the age of 12 or younger. Most teenagers say they first learned about sex from their friends and peer pressure and coercion play a significant role in adolescent sexual behaviour. Sex is also often used as a commodity in exchange for money or other forms of payment. Twenty-eight percent of young South Africans indicate they know people their age who have sex for money, and 16% of sexually experienced girls interviewed said they themselves have had sex for money, drinks, food or other gifts.

Although nearly three quarters of respondents say they are positive about the future of South Africa, white and Indian youth in particular are less positive, and 39% of all young South Africans indicate that they will probably leave South Africa someday. Although 8 in 10 respondents say they feel happy mixing with people of all races, 71% said they only have friends of their own race. But the vast majority believe they should participate in determining the country’s future with 88% of respondents saying they think it important to vote in an election.

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