As this year’s Youth Month draws to a close — marking the 42nd anniversary of the Soweto Uprising that occurred on June 16 1976 — it is relevant to ask what the anniversary means for the youth of today.
The day is immortalised in South Africa as the day in which high school pupils 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 seven in black schools.
After 1994, June 16 was set aside as a public holiday in South Africa, to honour the bravery and sacrifice of the courageous youth 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 youth across the country.
This year’s youth month theme “Live the legacy: Towards a socioeconomically empowered youth” was launched by the National Youth Development Agency (NYDA) specifically to address the difficulties facing young people today, such as the high rate of youth unemployment that has reached a record of 52.4%.
Although today’s youth are not fighting for the same things that were fought by the youth of 1976, our young people need to redirect their focus to personal and socioeconomic development of the country, in line with the vision towards a free South Africa in which the youth assume an active role as agents of change, reconstruction and development.
Young people should learn from the revolutionary roles played by the country’s gallant cadres in addressing the problems they face today. It is therefore crucial that they organise themselves towards advancing the struggle to redress past imbalances.
The 1976 struggle should challenge todays’ youth to take ownership of the problems that affect them directly such as access to quality education and unemployment. Education is the most important asset 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 system, opportunities are diminished.
Although access to education has, since 1994, been broadened to all races, which should have provided equal educational opportunities for all to pursue their dream careers and live better lives, inequalities in accessing educational resources 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 access to higher education continues to entrench the status quo where the more educated are more likely to be economically empowered.
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 problems undermine the promises of the Constitution and what the youth of 1976 fought for. They are also perceived by the majority of youth as a disjuncture between the promises of the Freedom Charter to provide free and compulsory education and the realities in which the youth live, which makes the reality of freedom and democracy difficult to comprehend.
The question that arises is: If access to higher education is still limited for black youth in South Africa, how different is the current struggle to the 1976 struggle against Afrikaans? But it is somewhat comforting that today, since the #FeesMustFall campaign in tertiary institutions, the government has promised free education and that its aim would be to address youth unemployment.
The biggest lesson young people should take from 1976 is the courage and bravery it takes to fight for political change. The actions of the youth of 1976 must be seen as an example to inspire and empower today’s youth to stand up and confront the problems they face, and not to wait for government to do things for them, so that they can liberate themselves.
It is only by empowerment with resources and knowledge about the experiences of 1976 that the youth can 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 through education and knowledge of their history should help young people to 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 difficulties and to take up opportunities so that they can transform socioeconomic conditions and build a better future for themselves, their families and their communities.
The same attitude is required to fight other problems that impede their development, such as lack of entrepreneurial skills, substance abuse, gangsterism and crime, gender violence, child abuse, discrimination, teenage pregnancy, mental health and HIV.
In line with government’s commitment to addressing youth unemployment and job creation, the government must direct its focus to skills development and transfer, entrepreneur development and the provision of information to young people.
As future leaders of this country, our young people deserve to be given opportunities so that they can develop to their full potential and make our country a prosperous and caring nation and a great place to live in. In this regard, emphasis should be placed on empowering the youth with education, job creation, health, fighting crime and rural development so they can participate in the country’s economy.
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 NYDA. They must look out for internships, learnerships and bursary programmes offered by various government departments. These programmes contribute greatly to giving young people skills and to 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. It has the potential to give young people their dignity.
Although young people are not well integrated 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 they can make use of the opportunities.
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 programmes to address the substandard education and poor employment opportunities that have become a reality for many of them. By so doing, 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 the pain it caused, its memory should be celebrated for its contribution to the freedom we now 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 their contributions will always be remembered in history and in the hearts of the generations to come. Let us then celebrate this memory by recommitting ourselves continuing the struggle for the improvement of the lives of our young people.
Despite the difficulties we still face as a country, our youth deserve a better future in order to transform South Africa into a country in which even generations to come can thrive and lead fulfilling lives. We should therefore all strive 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 visit our beautiful land.
Tembeka Ngcebetsha is a senior researcher for Freedom Park