We are failing our youth

2018-06-10 09:44
FIGHTING OPPRESSION: On June 16 1976, young people in Soweto started nationwide protests against changes to the education system. The protests illustrate the potential young people have to push for improvements and delivery of a better life for all. (Bongani Mnguni)

FIGHTING OPPRESSION: On June 16 1976, young people in Soweto started nationwide protests against changes to the education system. The protests illustrate the potential young people have to push for improvements and delivery of a better life for all. (Bongani Mnguni)

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Like so many epochal events, it is worth remembering how one came to be aware of the events as they happened, or where one was at that time. Usually, witnesses or participants in such events, or those who have experienced such events, will tell you exactly where they were at that precise moment. Such was the case on that fateful day of June 16 in 1976.

Early that morning – early enough, I recall, because I had just arrived at the law offices in New Brighton, where I was a candidate attorney – the telephone rang. Across the line came the familiar voice of the late Jane Phakathi (later Dr Oshadi Mangena), then of the Christian Institute. One could tell from her voice that she was utterly distressed and agitated.

“They are killing schoolchildren.”

I do not recall that she said much more than that. That brief conversation helped put flesh to the doctored news received from the radio.

The news soon spread by the grapevine to all corners of our land and abroad – the defenceless children of Soweto were being butchered by armed police. The schoolchildren were fighting back and many were under arrest.

We were putting together the pieces, and the burden of responsibility weighed heavily on us: angry, but powerless – or so we thought. In fact, there was power in solidarity.

Using a slogan with double meaning that hid more than it revealed – “The future is black!” – the children of Soweto displayed a remarkable sagacity and foresight beyond their years. Their momentary courage ignited a storm of protest across the land. This act changed the texture of the liberation struggle.

The occasion that triggered the protests of 1976 was the imposition by Bantu education authorities that half the subjects at high school would be taught and examined in Afrikaans.

A trigger is more than the mechanism that sets off the firing action of a gun. For the purpose of this address, it is also an event or action that precipitates memories, typically long suppressed or hidden, a flashback that takes one back to the most traumatic events in one’s life. The year 1976 was only to a limited extent about the Afrikaans language. In truth, the move unleashed anger and resentment, and the burning desire for freedom.

It was brought home that so unfree were black people that not even the education of the African child was the preserve of the African parent. In that act, therefore, education was not unrelated to the political turmoil in the conscience of many South Africans – black and white. For black people, it was the substance on which their future hopes and aspirations lay.

I believe there is hardly a country in the world that can boast as much as we do in South Africa about a liberation movement led by young people. Young people who defined for themselves the sacrifices that were to be made, and the outcomes that were sought. It was the young people of South Africa who, after 1976, bore the brunt of the system of apartheid.

The clear intent of apartheid Bantu education was to undereducate black children and make them susceptible to indoctrination. It was a long shot at ensuring ignorance that was akin to mental slavery, just like the colonialists sought to do from the time they set foot on our soil and as soon as they settled on our land.

Events of this nature invariably produce leaders from within the bowels of the movement. Such was the case in Soweto in 1976.

Tsietsi Mashinini, Khotso Seatlholo and many others have become household names, and they are representative of the spirit of their time. These leaders emerged because of their charisma and ability to rally people around a cause, and, above all, because of their intelligence.

They were trusted and they had the words to express what was in the hearts and minds of the people. Above all, they became leaders because they were fearless and courageous. They were prepared to take risks at great cost to themselves.

In this case, they braved the power of the apartheid state, and spent weeks in hiding before they were able to escape and find their way into exile. Away from home, they continued to rally for the cause and became acknowledged as the voice of Soweto in 1976. For that, they deserve recognition and to be celebrated as the leaders of the liberation movement in South Africa.

There are two consequences of this that I wish to point out. The first is that a country like South Africa ought to honour and revere children and young people. That is simply because, when all seemed to be lost, it was the young people of our land – it was the schoolchildren – who sacrificed all and took up cudgels against the system.

The second consequence is that education is the backbone of our nation’s life and psyche. It is evident that it was education that shaped a view of the world and the aspiration for freedom.

It was as a result of the struggle for education that a political critique of the oppressive system was undertaken. By and large, it was through teachers that many activists honed their radical instincts to fight the oppression. It was teachers who populated many of our struggles – the early ANC, the Unity Movement and later the PAC. Many of the leaders were school teachers.

And yet, on both fronts, the South Africa of today is woefully lacking.

For example, I am not aware that we have a credible youth development policy today. I do not mean the fund established to enable young entrepreneurs to develop their ideas – even that has been abused. I do not refer to that perversion of youth that has become the ANC Youth League – ageless and in every respect the antinomy of all that 1976 was about. It became, at its best, a means to climb the ladder of the party and, at worst, a means towards self-enrichment and corruption.

By doing so, the young people displayed all the elements of anti-intellectualism and antipathy to the world of ideas so keenly fashioned in the examples of Anton Lembede, AP Mda and Oliver Tambo – founders of the youth league.

By this I mean the inability to patiently construct an argument, listen to the contrary position, articulate ideas and, directed by an innate idealism, have the conviction that there are solutions to problems and seek to understand the nature of the problem to discover a solution. It is about respect for ideas and a recognition that there are times when such wisdom resides not among those one likes or respects, but also among those one distrusts and to whom one may be opposed.

In our country today, about 50% of our youngsters are unemployed. About 3 million young people are out of school and out of work, or languishing in meaningless pursuits. Today, young people die like flies, either through senseless and gratuitous violence or involvement in crime of all kinds. Children, especially girl children, are violated and raped, and many women are killed by their close partners or relatives.

Our prisons are bursting with talented and intelligent young people who society has given up on. Aids and all manner of opportunistic and lifestyle diseases are decimating young people. They have no advocates and we fail to understand them. Many are dying a living death through the culture of substance abuse. To counter this, the voice of young leaders must be heard.

I have no recollection that organised youth in politics, civil society or churches are rallying the voice of conscience to take action in a new struggle of our times.

When the voice of young people was heard in recent years, it was during the #FeesMustFall movement, a laudable campaign, but one that was always unlikely to get to the crux of what ails our young people in society.

It would benefit the best of the young people who, although able but poor, are not able to access higher education and succeed. There are young graduates who not only find it hard to get jobs, but also do not seem to have the wherewithal to strike out on their own endeavours and become innovators and creators of value. What kind of future will there be in our country when the voice and energy of the young is no more?

It is not so much the tragedy of young people without schools, teachers and facilitators to learn with dignity. It is not so much that resources are not available for education, but that education appears to be conducted without purpose or meaning. Clearly, there are many teachers more interested in their own well being than that of the children they teach.

Our education system needs to recover a higher level of ideas to understand the basic tenets of education for liberation; to value freedom and emancipation of the mind, a restlessness about finding solutions; and to define the problem, the anger at inequality and injustice, and a vision of a world brimming with opportunities and a steady future. Education must cultivate hope for a better future, but must also instil in our children the knowledge of change agency.

We are in education to make our contribution to a better world. We are managing an education system that fails to sufficiently uplift young people to own their future. We are too concerned with numbers, grades, certifications and competition among some elite schools.

Education for liberation is what we believed we deserved as a nation. Today, however, we are actively suppressing criticality, thought and difference. As a result, we have become a selfish society focused on material gains, where wealth is flaunted and difference emphasised. Where is the egalitarian society Steve Biko so confidently spoke about?

I mention these two ideas as the monumental contributions of the Soweto generation.

It interests me, for example, that, if we look at the ANC today, there are no men or women in leadership in the 30 to 40 age bracket. There is also, especially since the disastrous Jacob Zuma presidency, except perhaps in being patronised from time to time, no role for the intellectual elite in the politics of the ANC. Nor does it seem like there is space for excellence and achievement beyond the ordinary and mediocre. As matters now appear, we seem bound to have leaders at all levels in their 70s for the foreseeable future.

To illustrate this point, one looks in vain for the leadership of the #FeesMustFall movement. They are nowhere in political parties or trade unions, and barely among nongovernmental and community-based organisations. Where are the student representative council presidents and leaders of student formations in our body politic? They are nowhere to be found because we live in a society and during a time when youth are distrusted. One would have thought a movement of that nature provided a ready resource for political parties to tap into and begin to shape a future founded or expressed in the idealism of the young.

June 16 will soon come and go. There will be nothing to show for it. There may be a debate in Parliament, but it will end there. Where is the policy framework and mobilisation of the young for a new engagement with society? With a society so divided by poverty, where racism and sexism abound, where there is so much lacking and where hope is lost for many, one would have thought that every local government would have a focal point for young people, every city or township would have a youth worker to organise young people and bring out talent, and local community centres would be buzzing with the creativity of the young.

Mashinini died in exile. He died before he could see the new South Africa for which he gave so much of himself.

Those who are here now should learn to live not for ourselves, but for others. What our country needs now is a youth programme that is run and managed by young people who have the courage and instinct to fix this ailing South Africa. An army of trained young people must be unleashed to go out as volunteers into all corners of the country to work, build societies and communities, undergo training and acquire skills, be reconnected with communities and understand what needs to be done to create a better future. Such a youth volunteer programme will ensure young people serve and rebuild battered communities, and inculcate patriotism and critical intelligence.

- Pityana sits on the advisory council of the Thabo Mbeki Foundation. This is an edited extract of the speech he delivered at the Tsietsi Donald Mashinini Annual Memorial Lecture.

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