This year’s youth day and month mark the 42nd anniversary of the ‘Soweto Uprising’ that occurred on 16 June 1976. The day is immortalised in South Africa as the day in which high school students in Soweto were massacred by the apartheid police during a peaceful march, in protest against the enforced use of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction from Grade 7 in black schools. This declaration simmered tension and resentment by black students, teachers and parents alike; who viewed Afrikaans as “the language of the oppressors;” which mandated a racist curriculum aimed at moulding black children into servants for the ruling classes. Teachers were also ill-equipped to teach in the language, which was for most, a third language; and African languages were completely ignored. The march was led largely by about 5 000 - 15 000 high school students in Soweto and roughly about 176 people up to an estimated number of 700 were killed as the police responded with teargas and live ammunition.
The events of June 16 1976 changed the course of South Africa's history and marked the beginning of the “Soweto Uprising,” as angered pupils targeted apartheid symbols - administrative offices, government buses and vehicles and municipal beer halls, which were first looted and then set alight. In response, anti-riot vehicles poured into Soweto, erecting roadblocks at all entrances and placing the army on alert. Violence erupted and spread to Alexandra - a volatile township in Johannesburg, and other areas across South Africa. International solidarity movements supported the pupils, putting pressure on the government to temper its repressive rule. The pressure was maintained throughout the 1980s, until resistance movements were finally unbanned in 1990.
After 1994, June 16 was set aside as a public holiday in South Africa, to honour the courage, bravery and sacrifice of the courageous youth cadres who were at the forefront of the struggle against Apartheid and Bantu Education. The whole month of June, has been dedicated to supporting and celebrating all youth across the country. Young people such as Hector Peterson, and Mbuyisa Makhubo (who disappeared), are remembered for their determination to fight for their rights; and for not flinching in the face of the brutal and violent repressive apartheid regime.
This year’s theme “Live the Legacy: Towards a Socio-Economically empowered Youth” was launched by the NYDA on 4 June 2018, specifically, to address challenges facing the youth of today such as the high rate of youth unemployment which has reached a record of 52.4%. This theme has been carefully selected to also celebrate the legacy of our two struggle icons - Nelson Mandela and Albertina Sisulu - who would have turned 100 years old in 2018. In the same spirit, the country commemorates the contributions made by our struggle stalwarts who risked their lives to free our country from oppression and white domination, and whose sacrifices contributed to putting the country on the correct path to building a non-racial, non-sexist and democratic state. The ideals for which all these struggle heroes and heroines lived and died for should continue to serve as a great source of inspiration for the youth of today.
Although today’s youth are not fighting for the same things that were fought by the youth of 1976 to overthrow apartheid, our young people need to redirect their focus to personal and socio- economic development of the country, in line with the vision to have a free South Africa in which the youth assume an active role as agents of change, reconstruction and development. Our youth should learn from the revolutionary and exemplary roles played by these gallant cadres, in addressing the challenges they face today. It is therefore crucial that they organise and mobilise themselves towards advancing the struggle against the challenges the country continues to face in redressing past imbalances and building a nation; to the point where all youth must wake up every single day with more determination than ever before to make a mark in the development of our nation.
The 1976 struggle should now challenge todays’ youth to take ownership of the challenges that affect them directly such as access to quality education and unemployment. Education is the most important asset the youth should acquire, it remains at the core of the efforts to build a generation of youth that will lead the country with diligence and take it to new heights. Without the key element of a sound education, opportunities are diminished.
While indeed, access to education has since 1994 been broadened to all races, which should have provided equal educational opportunities for all youth to pursue their dream careers and live better lives, inequalities in accessing educational resources in South Africa continues to be a challenge. Quality education continues to be accessed by the rich and privileged, and not the poor black child. The main reason for this is because access to higher education in South Africa continues to entrench a status quo whereby the more educated are likely to be the rich, and the less educated to be the poor which is exacerbated by the ever increasing fees. In addition, the socioeconomic conditions under which black youth live make it more difficult for them to advance academically at the same pace as their white counterparts. Many cannot proceed to tertiary education because of financial circumstances, and even those who can, do not qualify to study degrees that can place them in more technical jobs.
These challenges vehemently undermine the promises of the Constitution and what the youth of 1976 fought for. They are also perceived by the majority of the youth as a disjuncture between the promises of the Freedom Charter to provide free and compulsory education to the youth, and the realities in which the youth live, which makes the reality of freedom and democracy difficult to comprehend. What is even worse, is to see people who participated in the 1976 uprising and their children subjected to unemployment and poverty, and some of them can't afford tuition fees for their children; the majority are still behind bars, and many more are forced to work for sub-minimum wages. The question that arises is if access to higher education is still limited for the black child in South Africa, how different is the current struggle to the 1976 struggle against Afrikaans However, it is somewhat comforting that today, since the massive fees must fall campaign in tertiary institutions to transform the education sector, the government has pronounced free education and addressing youth unemployment as top government priorities.
How then should youth day be used by the youth of today? This day should be used as an opportunity to remind South Africans of the importance of its youth and the power they have in addressing the concerns and challenges facing them. It should be used as a day to take stock and celebrate the progress made in the country and the strides taken by its youngsters since 1976. The biggest lesson the youth should take from the youth of 1976 is courage and bravery they had in fighting for political change. Our youth must take the baton from the class of 1976 and run with it to reach new heights. The actions of the youth of 1976 must be seen as an example to inspire and empower todays’ youth so that they can develop a mind-set to liberate themselves, to stand up and confront the challenges they face, and not to wait for government to do things for them – just like their compatriots did in 1976.
It is only through empowerment with resources and knowledge about the experiences of 1976, that the youth should ensure that what happened in 1976 and the oppression that went along with it should never happen again in this country. The dream for every young person in South Africa is to have a better life. Empowerment with education and knowledge of this history should help the current youth reboot and gear up towards realising their dreams, and enhance the lives of all South Africans. It should encourage them to be equally courageous, daring and brave enough to face their current challenges; empower them to take up opportunities that are available around them so that they can transform socio-economic conditions and build a better future for themselves, their families and their communities.
The same attitude is required to fight other challenges facing the youth that impede their development such as lack of entrepreneurial skills, alcoholism and substance abuse, gangsterism and crime, gender violence, prostitution and child abuse, discrimination, child abuse and human trafficking, teenage pregnancy and gender violence, mental health and HIV/AIDS. In line with government’s commitment to addressing youth unemployment and job creation, the government must direct its focus on skills development and transfer, entrepreneur development, and providing information to young people. As future leaders of this country, our young people deserve to be given opportunities so that they can grow and develop to their full potential, and make our country a great place to live, a great country and a prosperous and caring nation. In this regard, emphasis should be placed on empowering the youth so that they can participate in the country’s socio-economic activities through education, job creation, health, fighting crime, and rural development.
The youth of today must grab the opportunities brought to them by democracy and freedom and must make use of youth development initiatives such as the National Youth Development Agency; and look out for internship, learnership and bursary programmes offered by various departments. These programmes contribute greatly in skilling young people and drawing significant numbers of unemployed graduates into the world of work. Ending unemployment among the youth is crucial to ending poverty and dependency on government grants; with potential to give young people their dignity.
While there is still a relative insufficiency to integrate young people as strategic partners in national development processes, the youth must take it upon themselves to visit relevant government departments and websites, to be informed about these initiatives so that they can make use of the opportunities presented to them. Through awareness campaigns, public discussion forums or dialogues on issues affecting the youth, our young people should empower themselves with information to better their conditions, including skills to develop government programs to address the substandard education and poor employment opportunities that have become a reality for many of them. By so doing, South African youth will continue to play a significant role in the country’s future, and will reap the rewards that the youth of 1976 fought and died for.
Although this day will always be remembered for all the pain it caused, its memory should be celebrated for its contribution to the freedom we currently enjoy. At Freedom Park, we have inscribed the names of young people who died during the 1976 student uprising on the Wall of Names, so that their contributions will always be remembered in history and in the hearts of many for generations to come. Let us then celebrate this memory by recommitting ourselves to continue with the struggle for the improvement of the lives of our young people. Despite the challenges we are still facing as a country, our youth deserve a better future in order to transform the South African reality into a country in which even generations to come can thrive and lead creative and fulfilling lives. We should therefore all strive as a nation to live in peace, for without peace, our youth will not have proper education and without education, it will be more and more difficult to create jobs; business will invest its funds elsewhere; and tourists will not come to our beautiful environments.