Young ... and free

By taking to the streets with courage and a strong sense of defiance, those brave young people involved in the Soweto uprisings helped to bring down apartheid and usher in the democracy we enjoy today.

Although young South Africans can stop focusing on liberation and enjoy more freedom of expression than ever before, the problems they face are as serious to them as apartheid was for the youth during the protests. This generation’s struggle is for jobs, a good education and a society free of crime and HIV/Aids.

What does June 16 1976 mean to them?

Tebogo Mkhize (17), a learner at Morris Isaacson High School, which played a major role in the uprisings, believes Youth Day is about commemorating the lives of the young people who fought for freedom.

Youth Day comes with South Africa’s hottest artists singing their hearts out to young, jiving fans, but Charlotte Manthosi (17) thinks this is wrong. “Youth Day should be commemorated, not celebrated,” she says. “Those people died for us and we should rather be looking at what happened and talking about youth issues.”

When first asked, Trevor Neeves (16) is not sure about the events of June 16 1976. But when reminded, he says: “I learnt about the uprisings in grade five. It is very sad, so many children died. They shouldn’t have been forced to learn in Afrikaans.”

Young South Africans say the country has made huge strides since 1976, and appreciate living in a non-racial society.

Yazeed Arnold (18) says: “Now we can study anywhere and go into any career, instead of being restricted to certain jobs.”

Mkhize adds that besides providing more employment opportunities, democracy has also brought computers to his school, and the freedom to live and go where he wants. 

Today’s young black South Africans have assertive, the-sky-is-the-limit attitudes. “Now we have more self-esteem,” says Nomakhebu Booi (18). “We feel we’re just as clever as whites are and can do everything they can do. Blacks also have the freedom to express themselves.”

Democracy has also given youth the freedom to be creative. In these 12 years of liberation young people have expressed and defined themselves in ways that have shaped South African culture. It is not just kwaito that is hotting up the local music scene. Simphiwe Dana’s traditional Xhosa sounds and the original tunes of Freshlyground are asserting young people’s pride in being South African. Young people’s fresh ideas are exploding everywhere ... in music, film, fashion, TV, theatre and the arts and poetry scenes.

It is the youth who are redefining South African culture. South African urban culture is not just youth culture, it is everyone’s culture. Youth stations such as Yfm set radio trends, and television shows about youth, such as Yizo Yizo, have set the trend for other local productions.

While South Africa may be a new nation brimming with opportunity, young people still believe there is much to improve. Their major concerns are HIV/Aids, crime and getting a good education.

While Mkhize believes the government isn’t doing enough to improve education in rural areas, he’s impressed by its provision of bursaries.

But Mkhize, who has a bursary to study at the University of Cape Town, is one of the lucky few. Only 17% of matriculants got an exemption for university entrance last year. For those who did, fees are all too often unaffordable and bursaries are in short supply. Both Booi’s parents are out of work. “I would love to study,” she says, “but I can’t afford to. I know many in my position.”

Arnold adds that many people he knows are “discouraged about studying because they feel they won’t find jobs afterwards”.

Fear of unemployment looms large over the heads of South Africa’s youth. Walk into any township, on any weekday, and you will find dozens of people sitting around doing nothing. According to Statistics South Africa, one-third of all young people between the ages of 25 and 34 are unemployed. Some feel strongly that business and the government are not doing enough to employ youths or provide work experience.

Sipho Ngwetsheni, executive director of the Centre for Youth Development, says: “Businesses say they want people with experience, but aren’t willing to hire young people and give them that experience.”

Business law is what Manthosi hopes to study, but she is worried that without money to realise her dream, she may end up unemployed. Having grown up in Alexandra, she is all too familiar with poverty.

Kerry Theunissen (15) may go to a private school, but she fears she will be denied job opportunities because of black economic empowerment policies. Affirmative action is prompting many skilled young whites to emigrate, although research shows that so far, most who emigrate are in their mid-thirties to mid-forties.

HIV/Aids is another threat confronting South Africa’s youth. Young people with no hope for the future face a greater risk of infection because they feel they have nothing to live for. Studies show that the peak incidence of infection is in young people aged 15 to 24.

Youth may be bombarded with information on HIV/Aids, but they don’t always translate their knowledge into action. In a national survey conducted by loveLife in 2004, only 52% of youth reported condom-use in their last sexual encounter.

Young women are at a higher risk of HIV infection than young men. loveLife’s 2004 survey shows that of the 10% of South African youth who are HIV-positive, 77% are women. One reason for this is the pervasive practice of transactional sex. Youth culture is strongly consumerist and shopping is a favourite pastime. Tholakele Mbewe (19) says girls in her township sleep with older, working men who give them cash to buy expensive clothing labels. It is a vicious circle, she adds, as girls feel pushed into buying labels to get status, which in turn attract male attention.

In communities across South Africa, clothing labels are also used to separate different gangs. Ted Legget from the Institute of Security Studies (ISS) says gangs use expensive labels to appear sophisticated and to garner a sense of self-esteem. “It’s sad that the appearance of success is more important than the reality of it to these young people who are so removed from the mainstream,” he says.

Fighting gangsterism and crime is certainly one of our top priorities. Boyane Tshehla, an ISS senior researcher, says young people commit crimes more than older people because they are seeking adventure.

While many may think the youth show no concern for politics, this was not evident in the past elections. Youth between 18 and 25 accounted for almost 60% of new registrations, according to the Independent Electoral Commission.

In fact, whatever their worries or preoccupations, our young people are—according to research—pretty upbeat about today and tomorrow.

In loveLife’s 2001 national survey, 61% of young people reported being very happy with their lives, while in the 2004 survey, 89% said they had many opportunities.

It is because of the youth of 1976, and many others, that Mkhize and his friends don’t talk about fighting oppression. Sure, poverty is a major problem and jobs and bursaries are hard to find, but at least now they have choices and a much greater chance for a better, brighter future.

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