On the morning of 16 June 1976, following months of rising frustration, thousands of black school children walked from their Soweto schools to Orlando Stadium in protest against being taught in Afrikaans. Subsequent reaction by the police on that day resulted in the deaths of 23 people. Almost 700 people, many of them children, were killed during the violence that followed for weeks thereafter. Although the matter of language was the driver for the rally, it almost certainly was merely a catalyst for the real reason behind that fateful day: inequality - in this case, inequality entrenched in the erstwhile system of "Bantu Education".
Living in very different times, on 16 June 2013 we commemorated the lives of the youth who on that day stood up against inequality. We celebrate the freedom and equal rights which we today enjoy by virtue of our Constitution and everyone who pursued a just and democratic society. We look back at those terrible times and, in context of more recent events such as the "Arab Spring", understand why the youth of 1976 had had enough of a system that deprived them of a real and substantively equal future. Pallo Jordan, former Minister of Arts and Culture, recently wrote that "hindsight tells us that the 1976 Soweto uprising was the watershed, when the strategic initiatives passed from the apartheid regime to its opponents...New generations of determined fighters to swell the ranks of all liberation formations emerged from 1976". Indeed, the events of 1976 had defined a new generation of determined activists and showed how inequality could unite and drive those affected by inequality to a point of no return.
Today - 19 years since the dawn of our constitutional democracy - South Africa remains a highly unequal society. Although the country has experienced 18 years of economic growth and made substantial progress with regard to poverty alleviation, housing and access to water, sanitation and electricity, the government's failure to fully realise socio-economic rights has directly led to a growing number of service delivery protests and accompanying violence across the country. These shortcomings are further exacerbated by corruption in the public service, financial mismanagement, the deployment of inept cadres to key positions in all levels of government and a renewed delineation of society along racial lines.
One of the biggest concerns, however, is the inability of the government to provide quality basic education to everyone. The failing state of basic education and its relation to the prospects of future employment have resulted in the youth of today facing inequality of a different kind. President Zuma must be commended for a recent statement in which he once again emphasised the importance of education. Rhetoric is, however, quite far removed from reality in relation to basic education. Stating that "today you can hear people criticising government...they have forgotten that government is trying to face problems that have been there for centuries... they act like only in 1994 we started messing up education", it appears as if the President, to a certain extent, recognises the fact that the government has indeed been "messing up education". In any event, those learners who have waited a year for textbooks, those who have to be taught under a tree, those who do not have teachers in the classroom and those who are made to believe that a foundation for quality education is a 30% pass rate, probably care less about the problems of the past and more about the prospects for the future.
According to Stats SA's recent mid-year estimates, 65% of the population is 34 years of age or younger whilst 48% is below the age of 25. These young South Africans comprise 72% of the country’s unemployed. More than 36% of those below the age of 34 years - and 48% of those between the ages of 15 and 24 - are without work. It is difficult not to be concerned when one considers these statistics indicating the number of unemployed young people who are potentially disaffected and without hope for a better future.
Whether we do not yet fully comprehend the seriousness of the matter, whether we are perhaps conveniently ignoring the potential future impact, or whether we actually believe the political rhetoric, is not quite clear. Be that as it may, unless the youth of today - and especially those deprived of proper education and future prospects of employment - are given hope and the prospect of a real and equal future, we may well see another generation who have had enough of a system that denies them decent education, proper school facilities, mother tongue education and adequately trained and committed teachers. Without at least an expectation of remarkably improved quality basic education, as well as the prospect of future employment, these persisting inequalities may well prove to be a watershed for today's generation.
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