Youth leaders who helped shape SA

2019-06-26 06:03

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THE month of June gives an opportunity for us to reflect on youth issues but also on the state of youth leadership.

When people think about the events around June 16, 1976 there sometimes is an impression that it was a uniquely Sowetan phenomenon.

Soweto may have been the centre for media attention, due to the number of people that unfortunately lost their lives on the day, however the youth conscientisation and mobilisation was happening in most major cities of the country.

The South African Student Organisation (SASO) was employing a strategy that was agreed upon in its executive meeting held at the Edendale Lay Ecumenical Centre in 1971 to reach out to high school pupils.

Committed cadres of SASO crisscrossed the country, conscientising young people.

The Natal Youth Organisation was launched at the Lay Centre in 1972 and soon thereafter local youth organisations began to emerge in most townships.

One of the leaders that emerged from that era was Skhumbuzo Ngwenya, who became the first chairman of the Imbali Youth Organisation.

When the United Democratic Front was launched in Pietermaritzburg in 1983, Ngwenya was elected as the Publicity Secretary, making him one of the youngest people to serve in the executive committee, serving with seasoned leaders like AS Chetty, Collin Gardner and others.

Ngwenya is the only youth leader to receive the honour of having a street renamed after him by the Pietermaritzburg Transitional Local Council — the Skhumbuzo Ngwenya Road runs from Imbali through Slangspruit to join Pentrich Road. The location of the road is symbolic of the journey that many unemployed youth take on a daily basis to look for jobs in the city.

Like many of youth leaders of that era, Ngwenya was a university graduate with a strong commitment to community development.

His conscience went under a serious test when he had to choose whether he would continue with his position as a teacher at Mpolweni High School, which came with a specific condition that he found not acceptable to him.

He chose to follow his conscience.

His commitment to activism and youth development earned him an opportunity for a study tour in Europe.

Ngwenya, like his counterparts in different parts of the country, was a resilient leader: he would not be silenced even after numerous attempts on his life, bombing of his house, and detention without trial three times.

The activist in him rose even during his detention at the New Prison, where he fought tirelessly for the improvement of conditions for detainees.

He did this through the support of the Pietermaritzburg Detainees’ Aid Committee, PACSA and progressive attorneys.

Although he survived the brutality of the apartheid system, he succumbed to a violent attack after a meeting with international visitors in 1992.

Tributes that flowed after his death show how he was admired equally by different races in the city.

People of all races who worked with him regarded him as a peace-loving man, a thinker and committed activist for justice. His work demonstrated a commitment to non-racialism and forward looking. Even to this day many leaders speak highly of his personality and lessons that they learned while working with this gentle youth leader.

The lives of fallen youth leaders like Ngwenya should be a source of reflection for youth organising with a strong commitment to education, justice, non-racialism and forward thinking.

These leaders demonstrated leading from the front, they were willing to make unpopular sacrifices and never abused their vulnerable and sometimes politically naive followers.

His untimely death robbed the city of an opportunity to observe how he could have challenged corruption and injustice towards the poor in the present day.

• Khulekani Mfeka is associated with the Sinomlando Centre for Oral History and Memory Work in Africa through the Edendale History Project. He writes in his personal capacity.

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