Two days ago, we were meant to celebrate June 16th, in recognition of the gallant, heroic and militant struggles of the rebellious black youth of Soweto of 1976, which was arguably such a watershed moment in our history that it set the tone for all the major struggles more broadly in the anti-apartheid struggles that followed, especially those of the tumultuous 1980s, which in turn led to the negotiated settlement of the 1990s.
But it is a reflection of the deep disappointments of the post-apartheid era that for many years June 16th has increasingly lost its allure and significance in the collective memory of South Africans and especially the black youth, whose lives today are a far cry from the changes they had legitimately expected after the 1994 elections. This was in fact primarily why the student uprisings of 2015 took place and spread like wildfire across the country, for which inadequate government funding of tertiary education was ultimately responsible.
Nobody, especially black students, expected that they would not be able to afford to pay for tuition fees and the costs of basic things like accommodation, food, books, stationery and transport. And even after the Fees Must Fall movement of 2015 had a dramatic impact on the ANC government, which won them some important gains and concessions, those struggles continued in the years thereafter.
Like so many other demands and rights in the celebrated Freedom Charter, embraced so fervently by the ANC during the ant-apartheid struggles, the practical meaning of the ‘doors of learning and culture shall be open to all’ evaporated after 1994 as a direct result of the ascendancy of neoliberal policies in the field of education, basic services, health and much more. Instead, everything had to be paid for, disregarding the ability, income and affordability to do so.
Infrastructure in black townships, especially of classrooms, water, sanitation, roads, clinics and hospitals are in a general mess, especially following the huge move by black parents to place their children in former model C schools in former white suburbia, far from their homes, which created lots of problems for learners and parents alike. Today, basic infrastructure is either absent or in a dreadful state of neglect in many or most black townships, which is where the vast majority of black youth still reside.
In a 2019 article about the resurgence of student militancy at Wits University I wrote: “What a shocking indictment of this government it is that in the richest and most powerful city in Africa many black students struggle to fulfil the most basic requirements in order to study. If a democratically elected government cannot adequately satisfy those basic needs of students they do not deserve to be in office.”
Today, every problem black students and the youth more generally experienced after 1994, as a result of those neoliberal policies, have been magnified and exacerbated much more, as a direct and indirect result of the widespread devastating impacts of the Covid- 19 pandemic in black townships in particular.
Probably the most serious consequence of it is how the already rampant and very debilitating black youth unemployment levels got much worse since Covid-19 hit our shores in March 2020. Right now, such devastating and unprecedented unemployment among the black youth, negatively affecting every single facet of their lives, is in a raging crisis, threatening to ignite mass struggles which could make the explosions of 16 June 1976 look mild by comparison.
So depressing has the lot of the black youth been for many years in every respect, especially since Covid-19 began, that at this crisis-ridden conjuncture the ANC government has done little or nothing to address their most urgent problems, especially the worsening unemployment crisis, the consequences of which has afflicted them in so many different ways. How these depressing realities will affect the outcome of the upcoming local government elections in October is impossible to predict with any accuracy, but it will most probably negatively affect the ANC, especially against that background.
But an even bigger and more urgent question of this widespread demoralisation and alienation of this despairing black youth is whether the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) will be able to capitalise on it at those polls. This is an especially important question because of all the political parties it is mainly the EFF which has had a big and concentrated focus on the black youth, primarily because that has since its inception been their primary constituency.
However, with the increasing racialist and often downright racist comments, especially made by its leader, Julius Malema, gains the EFF might make at the polls will only serve to exponentially increase what is not only a discursive problem but a distinct danger to our body politic and in the relations between the apartheid-inherited era of four, rather fictitious, racial groups, of whites, Africans, Coloureds and Indians.
In this regard, we were reminded again, but this time even more ominously, when at a press conference last week Malema lashed out again at Indian people, when he in the same breath as attacking the minister of public enterprises, Pravin Gordhan, misguidedly and erroneously said that we are being ‘’ruled by Indian people’’. Generalisations of Indian people, who are in fact sharply divided by class and other factors and far from homogenous, have reached new ludicrous heights by Malema’s arguably both racialist and racist remarks.