It is a shame that inequality has become sharper during our constitutional democracy than during apartheid.
Last week we celebrated the 40th anniversary of the 1976 uprising. Conscious of the surname I carry, I felt it better to leave the writing about this very painful historical event to others, until I heard the president’s speech on June 16.
Understandably, with elections coming up, President Jacob Zuma focussed on all the achievements of the ANC government over the last 22 years – in particularly for the youth. Schools that have been built, libraries upgraded, fees waivered, tablets for learning etc. So all in all Zuma wanted to let us know the ANC has done well for the post-1994 generation. But I think if the president got rid of half of his bodyguards for a day and spent some time with young people, especially in the townships, he would know how wrong he is.
A year ago, Sonwabiso Ngcowa and I published a book called 21 at 21. The book was a collection of life stories of young people born in 1994 and who thus “came of age” with our democracy last year. They were the first “born-frees” - although we quickly learned that they hated to be called that. Sonwabiso and I went all over the country speaking to young people. For months we sat in their living rooms and shacks and even in parks with those who were homeless and asked them to tell us their stories. Although this was not a scientific study, we made sure that we spoke to a representative sample in terms of race, gender, sexual orientation and class.
After 13 years abroad, I also wanted to reconnect with people on the ground, especially young people. I wanted to see to what extent the policies I was part of in the post-1994 period had come to fruition and benefitted them.
The journey was heartbreaking. There were some good stories, but they were very few and far between. Of course I hadn't expected a miracle; I am painfully aware that the legacy of colonialism and apartheid will be with us for a long, long time and that I and my descendants carry a heavy burden of responsibility for the sins of our fathers. But what I did not expect was how these young people’s lives were burdened and often ruined by the unjust and uncaringness of the current system and bureaucracy. It was the simple things, that could and should have been done by the government I have voted for over the last 21 years that, more often than not, caused these 21-year-olds great suffering and prevented them from making a better life for themselves.
Yonela told us that her sister had been killed in a “corrective rape” attack in Nyanga. “The police didn’t do anything, but a year later we found my lovely sister’s bones in a black bin in a neighbour's back yard,” she said, weeping silently. Despite the indescribable pain Yonela, who was only 14 at the time, still excelled at school. “The teachers beat me when there was candle wax on my homework, because my mum could not afford electricity, but I still loved school”. She worked hard for matric and did well; all her marks were above 70%, except maths for which she got 14%. “Why?” I asked. “Because the teacher never came to school the whole year”, she replied. And so Yonela could not follow her dream of going to university.
Andisiwe was a talented ballet dancer who overcame enormous challenges to be accepted by the Dance for All School in Cape Town. At 16 she was invited to go to London to train there – the dream of all ballet dancers. When she went to the Department of Home Affairs to apply for an identity document and passport, she was accused of being a liar. It turns out someone (clearly much older) had stolen her birth certificate and obtained an illegal identity document. Home Affairs eventually acknowledged their mistake, but weren't interested in helping her. More than a year later she eventually got an ID, but with a date of birth different from her own. That was the best they could do, officials explained. By then her chance to go to London was gone. Years later, Andisiwe still cried uncontrollably when she told us the story.
Aviwe lost both his mother and father at a very young age. At 16 he had to drop out of school to care for his dying grandmother. No one from the school ever came to try to find out what happened to him. After his beloved granny died, Aviwe ended up on the streets of Port Elizabeth, where he was beaten and abused. But it was hunger that pained him most. “I have been so hungry – I even burped hunger,” he told us. Aviwe, like many of the young people we spoke to, had tried to commit suicide. “I just want it all to go away”, he said.
We have let the young people down
You might think that these are extreme cases, but they are not. We heard stories like these time and time again. It became clear that the majority of young people in our country are surviving layer after layer of trauma, yet they survive. Not because of the help of the post-94 government, but despite a system and bureaucracy which often adds another layer of abuse and obstacles to their lives.
I have no doubt Zuma believes the ANC has done well, and of course the country is a much better place than under apartheid and from where it would have been had ANC not taken over. But as one of the 1976 student leaders, Seth Mazibuko, put it recently we have let the young people down. And to quote Cheryl Carolus, it is a time-bomb waiting to explode.
On Youth Day, Zuma berated the students who burned buildings and destroyed property to vent their frustrations. But these students are a small, and for that matter an elite group, among our young population. If the frustrations of the millions of young people in the townships who feel badly let down by this government erupt into action, we will see violence on as scale infinitely bigger than those of the student movement of 2015/2016 and even 1976.
*Melanie Verwoerd is a former ANC MP and South African Ambassador to Ireland.
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