The image captured by the late Sam Nzima of Mbuyisa Makhubu carrying 12-year-old Hector Pieterson who was shot by police (and his distraught sister, Antoinette, running alongside) is haunting and will remain in the consciousness of the world for all time.
That click of the shutter lens fundamentally changed South Africa’s political landscape and alerted the world to the plight of South African children amidst a hated system of oppression and inequality.
June is earmarked as an important month on our national calendar as it honours youth, historically heralding the fight and plight of the 1976 Soweto Uprising which symbolised youth defying apartheid. While we have a day of commemoration, it is small comfort to those who suffer inhuman daily existence.
We have come to a tipping point where the country finds itself on a precipice and if there is no urgent course-correction, we will find ourselves flailing in the abyss of history, where the plight of the brave youth will be forgotten.
In 1976, there was a common enemy — the apartheid state — and perhaps it was easier to mobilise the youth to rally and defy a system that did not work for them. South African history books often refer to the term “the spirit of the 76-ers.” More than four decades later, it is more difficult to define the enemy in a system that promised to protect and where Section 28 of the Bill of Rights in our Constitution states that “every child has the right to basic nutrition, shelter, health care and social services, as well as the right to be protected from maltreatment, neglect, abuse or degradation”.
Forty-six years later it is critical that we reflect about youth in this nation and how the system is inexplicably stacked against them. What does an average day entail for most children in this country? For many, it means risking their young lives for survival. It entails crossing crocodile-infested rivers to reach a school with no modicum of basic infrastructure, possibly no teacher present and the indignity of a pit latrine toilet as the only bathroom facility.
It involves hunger and poverty on a scale which should be considered a human rights violation. It entails violence in households, absent fathers, or child-led households where these poor souls have no basic dignity, no safe refuge and a fight for basic survival every single minute of every day.
It should be a natural and biological response to protect a child and failing to do so through intent or inability because of a broken system is unacceptable. The horrific stories reported daily where children are victims of violent crime, abuse, hunger and poverty reflect our general societal condition — in a so-called democratic and developing state — and is a symptom of a far larger problem that needs urgent redress.
It is my firmest belief that children should be given a voice and platforms where they can express their daily plight and this needs to be broadcast to the world. Theologian and philosopher R Jonathan Sacks once said, “While we can remember the past, we cannot write the future. Only our children, the future of our community, can do that.”
While policies are in place on paper, the will to implement or the magnitude of the problem, may prevent this from happening so the cycle of despair for the youth of this nation continues. Youth organisations such as the African National Congress Youth League (formed in 1944) and the myriad youth programmes in government departments — such as National Youth Development Agency — were idealised as a solution to the plight of youth in South Africa.
Many have come under heavy criticism for lack of concrete strategic planning and mandates. While the government has established no-fee schools to ensure basic universal access to education, many lack capacity and resources. While the government launched the Youth Parliament in 2013 for young people to take part in shaping the country and deepening democracy, a great deal still needs to be achieved — South Africa’s youth continue to bear the burden of high unemployment rates.
While there are various predicaments facing the youth of this country, solutions are available. These include allowing the youth the platform to voice their lived experiences, active citizenry, involvement of civil society in causes directly affecting the youth of South Africa. We live in an era of instant communication through various platforms where the challenges that face the youth of this country can be exposed and, just like in the violent and turbulent times of apartheid, one photo might mobilise the South African, continental, and international community to become involved and lead a fight against the injustice of inequality that youth in this country are exposed to.
Apathy can form no part of social and spiritual consciousness. Governments and leadership wax and wane but the ability to do good, inculcate pride and responsibility into society and awaken a fire of defiance will last forever.
The young people of this country should actively mobilise against their struggles because democracy is not static or guaranteed. It is hard-earned and requires protection that is seen to be done. This Youth Month should not only be about whimsical historical reflection — Nelson Mandela remarked that history will judge us by the difference we make in the everyday lives of children. The world is watching, and we shall be judged.