June has passed, when South Africa celebrates the struggles and sacrifices of the young people who fought the apartheid regime in 1976, but I remember the youth of Scenery Park, who perished in the Enyobeni tavern event in East London on Sunday 26 June 2022. This dark day reflects, to our generation, the horrors of 16 June 1976, and I pray that our nation can mourn them and find healing together with their loved ones.
Part of our reflection must involve turning our attention to the relationship between our youth and institutions, regarding both institutional literacy among the youth and the institutional architecture that ought to serve us. Is there such a thing as a “university of life”? Are our institutions legitimate in the eyes of young South Africans? By literacy I mean how much awareness youth have of the institutions they ought to relate to, and of those that ought to serve them.
Regarding institutional architecture, I am concerned about the status of our institutions and their fitness for purpose and resilience. The resilience of our youth is highly dependent on the resilience of our institutions and their architecture. Much work is still needed to make them more adaptable in the face of disasters and rapid change.
How do these institutions engage with the complex challenges and possibilities of our youth? How many among our youth are aware of the recently launched Integrated Youth Development Strategy Summit, for instance?
As psychologist and author Dr Nicole LePera tweeted, “Society pushes us since childhood to be in a chronic state of fight or flight. Rush to school. Compete for good grades. Compete in sports. Achieve. Perform. Our nervous system needs stillness, quiet, play, and creativity. We’re human, not machines.” So we have to reflect on whether, as we are pushed, we are indeed aware of the institutional context that exists around us and whether, as our nervous system yearns, such yearning can be fulfilled by this necessary literacy and the optimisation of available and accessible institutions?
The loss of children’s lives at Scenery Park reflects the lived realities that demonstrate what is wrong with our society and the state of human development, especially as it pertains to our youth today. It talks about inequality’s rendering of public life, culture and recreation; as well as the weak regulatory environments that fail already struggling families and their communities and which spawn alcohol abuse.
Not long ago, in another corner of the city, a young student was butchered by her lover and her body parts disposed of in a suitcase and black bags. The student community of Fort Hare responded with rage and solidarity and the culprit was convicted soon after. When such devastation is visited on our youth, you have to wonder about the status of a nation’s nervous system and its readiness to perform the necessary duty of safeguarding its own future by protecting its offspring.
Curiously then, it was not us — activists, forums, student movements and youth structures — who rushed to the frontlines in sharing the grief of the Scenery Park community. Instead, we retweeted and watched from afar. Where was civil society? Are we so numb? Recently, there was the murder in Mthatha of another young woman, Namhla Mtwa, that got the community to demand answers. All of these point to a grim public sphere with a host of institutional ineptitude.
Therefore, we must, as youth, now conduct a deep review of South Africa from the way in which it is institutionally geared to answer to our needs — and urgently transform it as needed. We must also conduct some introspection and honest and deep reflection. We deserve better than Enyobeni.
We must look at the home, the school, the higher education institution, the place of work and all providers of both public and private support and services. Do these realms that we encounter on our youthful journey cause us to be aware of their existence as institutions and to be literate and well-versed on the functions they ought to perform to shape our society and our constitutional democracy? Will these draw us closer to achieving a “wellbeing economy”?
If we imagine our society as a fully optimised “university of life”, teaching us about its assemblage of institutions, we ought to be knowledgeable of the ways in which society is constructed and how to maintain and safeguard its systems and prescripts if they are essential to our resilience. We ought to be aware of the political economy that shapes our context and shapes a more transformative outlook on development. We should maintain the civil liberties of being knowledgeable of this as ordinary and conscious citizens in a non-partisan public.
A society that is institutionally illiterate will get increasingly caught up in the dogmas of any warped political system that transgresses and encroaches on every aspect of the public in the eternal battle with capital. This poisonous potjie will continue to keep our youth waiting. A nation’s offspring then become weapons and not humans, thus sacrificing both their physical and intellectual bodies in the wake of all kinds of harm. Failure to invest in their development and empowerment strips them of any kind of agency or independence of mind, and exploits their idle time to recruit, repurpose and lay them as dolosse in the face of rising tides. In the end it renders them as sacrificial functionaries who buttress its not-so-resilient structures.
It then deploys them to galvanise thought and polarise public life while intimidating the unknowing, unassuming and unsuspecting poor — whose hunger, desperation and destitution is always readily amenable to any messianic abuse. We see it with pimps who dress up as the reverend in a church, the employer trading sex for jobs, the cheerleaders and bullies in the various youth and student movements at learning sites.
All these have the same “prey-book”. They rely on the individual cult to instil fear, reward short-termism, weaken institutions and their credibility — at first temporarily, and over time working to permanently destroy their legitimacy, awareness and eligibility. It is this literacy that should rather ensure their safeguarding and resilience but instead we inherit a nation with diminishing space and moments to meaningfully converse and think.
As a young person in South Africa today, I worry that our public sphere suffers from this in a bad way and that intervention on the youth question can no longer be evaded. We must, in the spirit of Youth Month, work tirelessly to build institutional literacy among our youth if we are to birth a resilient generation. It is this resilient generation that must reimagine and show up a South Africa we deserve in a post-pandemic age.