Democracy's children

The youth at Morris Isaacson High School in Soweto are still talking about politics, more than a quarter of a century after the march that began the June 16 1976 uprising was led from its gates.

One might expect learners at a school with a proud tradition of political activism to be interested in next week’s election. But they are not alone; from Eldorado Park to Houghton and on to Tembisa, students are talking about politics even though they can’t vote next week.

Themba Moyake taps his foot on the linoleum floor in a Morris Isaacson classroom and gives a lyrical performance of a poem he has written: “I’m no longer ruled by that raw useless automatic machine gun — my African renaissance has begun.” He is upbeat about South Africa’s progress since 1994.
“To sum it up, in 10 years I’ve seen reconciliation, the truth has come out, development and freedom.”

When teenagers speak about politics, they are positive and critical, alienated and passionate.

Vuyelwa Ka-Ntanzi hides her face with her braids and speaks softly. She is satisfied with the current government’s performance. “You can see our school has facilities. There’s improvement — it’s not like in the olden days with Bantu Education.”

Her fellow learner, Ayanda Gumede, disagrees. “There is improvement, but it’s not enough — that’s what people are saying.”

As electioneering steps up in Eldorado Park, the matric students of Silver Oaks High School are vocal about what they see as the insincerity of politicians.

Lauren Voeght is fuming on the subject of the Aids drug roll-out. “They said, ‘No, there’s a lot of complications with it, whatever.’ Two weeks before the elections now they decide, ‘No, let’s have the anti-retrovirals.’”

Outside the school repair work is being done on the road. “And also the paving — I just think that is like an eye-blinder, because why are they doing it two weeks before the elections?”

Gladys Shoyisa has similar complaints about the work being done near her school in Tembisa. “The only time we see politicians visit places is around election time.”

For a generation constantly accused of apathy, there is an earnest desire to participate in politics. “It’s not that we don’t want to be interested — it’s just that we are not given the necessary information. The situation doesn’t allow us to be involved,” says Shoyisa. “The youth has gained a lot in these 10 years, but I think the government has ruined it. They have turned [politics] into something we don’t understand.”

The students of Parktown Girls High School have similar misgivings about the relationship between politicians and young people. Itumeleng Mashikinya complains that “they always say that they’re targeting the youth, and the youth are just not interested. But the thing is they’re not speaking our language.”

Allen Williams runs the South African Youth Ministers Project, an NGO that works on strengthening democracy and educating schoolchildren about government structures.

He believes political apathy arises from a lack of opportunity for young people to engage in politics.

Even so, young people have a clear idea of where they would like to see politics in South Africa heading.

Learners from schools across the board express their desire to see a strong opposition in South Africa. “I think that in a democracy ... the opposition party is just as important as the party that’s in government,” says Florence Mazibuko, a Grade 11 pupil at Parktown Girls High School.

Khabo Vilakazi from Tembisa High is emphatic that the other parties “be given a chance”. Otherwise, she says, we will not know what they are capable of.

Learners are looking for a political environment of accountability and transparency. The politicians they admire most are those they feel are trustworthy and, above all else, outspoken.

They are primarily concerned with the issues that affect the majority of South Africans. “Aids” and “unemployment” are words they use often.

If Garikai Nyaruwata, head prefect of St John’s College, were voting, he says, he would choose “the party that presents the best, most feasible picture in terms of combating unemployment”.

To educate its students about the upcoming elections, St John’s will be staging mock elections with students representing real parties. In 1999 the then Democratic Party won, with the United Democratic Movement second and the African National Congress third. This year, however, many pupils feel the results will not be the same.

“Patricia de Lille has made huge inroads,” says Gavin Ray. “She definitely appeals to the new generation of South Africans.” His colleague, Ravindra Mistri, agrees: “Ja, I think she moves away from race-based politics towards more of an emphasis on policy.”

Strong calls for issue-based politics come from students at multiracial and multicultural schools like Sacred Heart College. “I believe that the ANC is really resting on their laurels. I’ve spoken to quite a few people my age and they believe they vote for the ANC simply because they don’t want to vote for a white party. They still see the ANC as Mandela and the whole struggle. I think we’ve moved away from that. South Africa has to turn a new page,” says Lehasa Moloi, a Sacred Heart learner.

As the bell for morning break rings children stream out into the courtyard. It forms a scene of multiracialism one rarely sees outside of commercials.

“With our generation [race-based politics] is not going to get you very far. We’re looking past the race,” says Parktown Girls’s Florence Mazibuko.

But Busisiwe Zondo of Morris Isaacson High School does not agree: “Race does play a role. You do think, ‘If I vote for a white man is apartheid going to come back?’”

Despite the large percentage of matric-leavers struggling to find jobs, the majority say they are upbeat about their prospects. They feel the onus lies on them, and not the government, to create and find employment — a sense of personal responsibility that extends to other issues.

This responsibility is not something that scares them. Phakiso Mahlangu looks out the school fence into Tembisa and smiles. “I see myself creating jobs for other people. I just see myself conquering all those difficulties out there.”

Simone Haysom

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