Professor Barney Pityana has questioned the importance of declaring a “youth month” when there is nothing to show for it at the end of each June.
Young people’s daily struggles were not being addressed, the human rights and struggle activist said on Saturday.
“A country like South Africa ought to honour and revere children and young people. This 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 the cudgels against the system.”
He was delivering the annual Tsietsi Mashinini lecture at the historic Morris Isaacson High School in White City, Soweto.
He said education was the backbone of the nation’s life and psyche.
“It was as a result of the struggle for education that a political critique of the oppressive system was undertaken.”
However, this was one area where present-day South Africa was “woefully lacking”.
Pityana said the structures in place to help the youth were not being used for their intended purpose.
“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,” he said.
“I do not refer to that perversion of youth that has become the ANC Youth League; ageless and in every respect the antithesis of all that 1976 was about. It became, at best, a means to climb the ladder of ambition of the party and, at worst, a means towards self-enrichment and corruption.”
Pityana said the youth of 1976 were prepared to take risks at great costs to themselves. “They deserve to be celebrated as leaders of liberation of South Africa.
“What kind of future will we have in our country when voice of the young is no more?”
Pityana said the right things could be done, but there was not much will to do it.
On June 16, 1976, Mashinini pleaded with schoolchildren to march peacefully against a decision to impose Afrikaans as medium of instruction.
They came from all parts of Soweto. Most of them had their hands up - a sign of peace and showing they were unarmed and were singing emotional songs like “Senzeni na ... sono sethu ubumnyama? (What did we do to deserve this ... our crime is to be black).
On that day, police fired live ammunition at defenceless schoolchildren, killing scores.
Mashinini and other student leaders became enemies of the state. Like many others who were hunted by apartheid security forces, he fled the country about a month later. Many became heroes for their sacrifice.
Mashinini died in exile Guinea in 1990, aged 33.