African youth are bystanders in their own economies

June 16 2014 was a day on which South Africa missed another crucial opportunity to redeem its painful but important history and herstory. June 16 represents far more than the narrow representation of the youth rising in Soweto, but was in fact the work of months of planning across the country towards the goal of capsizing the apartheid-colonial regime.

Today, post-1994, South Africa has reduced this day to a depoliticised public holiday that, this year, was well obscured beneath soapie re-re-runs and the Soccer World Cup.

The movement towards anti-history has been plaguing this country’s capacity to rise towards a nonsectarian celebration of achievement, in the interests of supporting the mythology of the current government. No nation can rise on lies and half-truths. History half-told is history lost.

One of the most mind-numbing representations of the Soweto uprising is that of the day driven by a largely self-organised group of young people, who left their homes as schoolchildren and returned in a bloodbath of history.

The young people of 1976 were undoubtedly courageous, but their contribution demands a far more analytical and holistic appraisal of the ongoing significance of that moment. Not only has the role of the Pan-Africanist Congress’s Zephania Mothopeng – one of the accused in the Bethal Trial that followed the uprising – been removed from the telling of the Soweto 1976 tale, but the complex planning of the day by a large, national task team has also been lost.

A generation of today’s children – and even adults – are subjected to a cursory account of courage under fire, without a substantially contextualised backdrop that should include demands for active citizenship, the framing of history and national mythology, a critical appraisal of “officialdom” and an assessment of the dangerously revisionist school curriculum.

The remembrance of June 16 today has not been translated into a rigorous framing of socioeconomic analysis. Our contested statistics suggest that about eight million young people are unemployed today, and that a large proportion of them are unlikely to gain access to the labour market. This is a result of the architecture of South Africa’s economic model, which has not managed to transform the economy rapidly enough to respond to historical structural fissures.

The State of the Nation address this past week referenced youth development and job opportunities, yet many current economic challenges are embedded historically in a social structure that deliberately depleted the life opportunities of today’s young people by placing previous generations in a capital-intensive economy that no longer functions effectively.

An additional conundrum is the narrative of “Africa rising”, which has been named and framed by media exponents outside the continent, locating the youth as key to our ascendance. Rather than assessing the problems of this discourse, most of us are imbibing the “sleeping giant” notion uncritically.

Many African countries are indeed experiencing an exciting trajectory of growth in tandem with relatively sound social indicators, but youth unemployment across the continent varies from 40% to 80% (depending on which data one sources and the various definitions of unemployment). A useful framing question could be: For whom is “Africa rising” and at what cost to our local development priorities? Are African youth mere chattel in the project of global capital?

The human army to which the “Africa rising” narrative refers to is ripe picking for a growing insurgency of extremist groups on the continent, such as Boko Haram. The demands of many of these groups have their origins in demands for work and social benefits. As people excluded from and disinterested in “Africa rising”, the youth pose both a blinding opportunity and a radicalised dissident group.

Young people are an essential component of any nation’s economic trajectory; they should generate ideas, innovation, energy, skills and so forth. A generation of unemployed youth is more than a “ticking time bomb” of lost potential and broken hopes.

This generation is rapidly becoming politically disaffected, disinterested in any broader national or regional programme of action. To call this generation “lost” is a great disservice to them – and an indictment on ourselves. It seems as though we lost them in 1976 and have been losing them ever since.

The post-1994 dispensation has not been successful in carving a new and inclusive citizenship that enables the full participation of the youth and gives them a sense of passion and hope for the present and the future.

Thirty-eight years after the Soweto uprising, the right to be an economic citizen remains a critical rite of passage. Yet we continue to peddle half-truths and to obscure the fact that the 1976 revolt was tied closely to the struggle against global capitalism and cultural imperialism. What was then framed as a battle to learn in one’s own language is today pertinent in the context of a school curriculum that denies and obfuscates the language of the anti-colonialist revolution.

The typical tool of colonial capitalism is to eradicate from the indigenous people the recollection of truth and self. The lies of information-sharing in a globalised world ensure that we are marginal in our own stories, consumers of the leftovers of our own produce, bystanders in our economies, third-class citizens in our own countries, and strangers in our own memory.

Liepollo Lebohang Pheko is a political economist, analyst and Afrikan feminist at large

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