It is 43 years since Soweto school children marched for the right to be taught in the language of their choice and were brutally attacked by the apartheid government, spawning protests nationwide that ushered in a new era of resistance.
But young people today want Youth Day to go beyond the history, to acknowledge their current reality and the struggles they face.
A group of youth leaders at our nonprofit organisation, Activate Change Drivers, believe that Youth Day on June 16 must not only include conversations that acknowledge that struggle and those who died so they could be “born frees” in a democratic South Africa, but must also confront current problems and needs that translate into meaningful action to empower their futures.
Activate Change Drivers focuses on empowering the youth to create meaningful change in their communities. The organisation has trained more than 3 400 people as change agents or “activators” in programmes that include developing leadership and mentorship skills and providing them with access to the Activate network. Their leadership and entrepreneurial skills are developed to help them achieve their dreams and make a difference in their communities.
It is this active citizenship that should be a feature of every youth programme and taught in our schools, according to people who have been on the programmes.
At a recent gathering of youth leaders in Cape Town, the young activists expressed their frustration at not being heard by today’s political and community leaders, as well as the insufficient focus on current youth problems during Youth Day celebrations.
Bhongolwethu Neo Sonti, a young entrepreneur who is part of a nonprofit organisation focusing on education, believes that Youth Day is about more than memories. “For me, it really needs to represent something bigger than acknowledging the youth population and then moving on. It needs to represent more than that. We continually have these events and these days just for the memories.”
Kay-Dee Dineo Mashile, who left her job to focus on literacy programmes for women and to develop her business so that she can become an employer one day, believes it is important to look at the legacy that today’s youth will leave. She says the youth cannot wait around for the government to give them aid, they need to empower themselves.
Mashile is passionate about economic freedom and says this is what the government, business and civil society should focus on: helping the youth to help themselves; empowering them to start their own businesses and become employers.
This is what Brian Qamata is working towards. He launched chess programmes for the youth in Khayelitsha to get them off the streets. He also has a side business selling socks in a collective.
Qamata says he found it difficult to visit the Hector Pieterson memorial in Soweto when he lived there. “It brought back bad memories about what the youth went through.
“Today, Youth Day should be more about how I contribute to the lives of the young people within my community, the positive impact … You get kids who have never been outside the townships in their 15 years and they begin idolising the reality around them, like crime and drugs. There’s a lack of mentorship for youth today.”
Ongeziwe Jaca, who began the Activate programme this year, doesn’t like Youth Day. “For me the day focuses more on history. We should focus more on what is happening now, what the youth are doing now, the positive stuff.”
They all agreed that it was time to stop looking backwards and honouring only the past, and that we also need to honour the youth heroes of today: those making a difference in their communities; those overcoming struggles to achieve; those starting businesses and employing others.
“We have youth who are struggling today with so many issues, but all we talk about on Youth Day is Hector Pieterson, when there are youth who are struggling with so much more, like social ills [and] mental disabilities. That is what Youth Day should embody — the struggles we are going through now,” says Candice Collocott, who works full-time and runs a nonprofit organisation part-time. Her organisation teaches the youth on the Cape Flats life skills. “Youth Day should be more about understanding each other, not only always thinking about the oppressed and the oppressor,” she says.
Fatima Hoosain, who has a nonprofit that focuses on skills development, worries that the current generation does not have enough of an understanding of democracy and what it means to be an active citizen. She recently found out that many of her friends didn’t vote in the recent national election, because they don’t believe it is important.
“We need to have these discussions around democracy and what it means and how each voice actually means something — it needs to play a big role. I think people have forgotten their voice means something. Just because they are kids, doesn’t mean they don’t have a say,” she says.
Of the past Mashile says: “There is a deep legacy of hurt in our communities because of apartheid. Hurt people hurt other people. We need to address the hurt. It shows in everything. Youth Day is an opportunity for us to do something.
“Has there ever been a more empowered generation, than ours? We have the law on our side, we can influence policy, we can march through the streets … We can also start businesses and employ one another, we can apply for funding, but we can also boycott those people refusing to fund us and can create something for ourselves.
“I am not saying it is easy, but I am saying that, as a young person who is aspiring to be an employer, it is more possible for us than it was for our parents. Our generation has to talk, our generation has to actively change things.”
Activate has compiled a book, Heroes, featuring some of the 3 400 young people who have taken part in its leadership programmes. The book celebrates the youth of today who are making a real difference in their communities. We believe these are the youth heroes who should also be celebrated ahead of Youth Day on June 16.
Activate Change Drivers is a network of young leaders driving change for the public good. It connects youth who have the skills, sense of self and spark to address tough challenges and initiate innovative and creative solutions that can reshape our society