Those greybeards in our carpeted parliament, sometimes caught with stolen gravy on their lips, forget them – often the most flagrant examples of inspiration emanate from the unlikeliest quarters.
In fact, from a former slave whose haggard, downtrodden tariff might have made animals of lesser men, Frederick Douglas emerged a propitious mind whose affecting penmanship has stirred many a literary connoisseur’s hearts.
From the damp, cold floor of a slave plantation – the lashings and hunger, a bonded child learning to read on the pavements and shipyards of Baltimore – to become amongst the finest black minds to rise from the dank, his lore is quite remarkable. No doubt this was incongruent to the academic logic of slaves being so base and so morally depraved as to be almost primitive that he effortlessly sprung to mind as this Youth Month swung by.
The inner city (some say a window dressing for “ghetto”) of America, where descendents of slaves often ended up, could easily pass off as a First World variant to our local township. Before and during apartheid, these were sprawling labour dormitories to fulfil, among others, the primary functions of segregation and access to bottomless cheap labour. Like their American counterparts, there was little money in these barracks, less prospects and sky high crime.
Being on this side of the fence often entailed dying dirt poor, on a property you didn’t own and leaving your offspring to the perpetual chokehold of cyclical poverty. It was, indeed, enslavement by another name and form.
So people like Professor Njabulo S Ndebele, Steve Biko, Mbongeni Ngema and a host of others – their own woeful circumstances notwithstanding – who came out of the mire writing, politicking and staging timeless performances on global platforms represent all that is possible when young minds earnestly nail their hearts to a purpose. More than most, this was a young generation that embraced the verities of hard work.
Aware that there were no quick fixes, no easy ways out but the sweat, blood and tears on a man’s brow, failure was not an option.
How disheartening therefore, that the shackles of apartheid undone 27 years ago and the freedom songs sung, the Quarterly Labour Force Survey (QLFS) brings us back to a bitter reality that 46.3% of our youth are unemployed, with independent research placing the figure upward of 75% – a statistic that would have our dead leaders wondering what the hell their successors have done with this land in the past quarter of a century? And, with a third Covid-19 wave already here, don’t hold your breath on these shameful statistics improving anytime soon.
Nonetheless, the black middle class – experts glowingly assure – is growing. Yet one must wonder what comfort this brings to the indolent youth living in a hovel in Khayelitsha? Still rankled by want, often with no access to running water and when they are sick they queue for intolerable hours at a public clinic where they might be sent away unexamined. But if news reports are to be believed, the fat cats in parliament who have just been given a 2.8% wage increase are, with reckless abandon, still raking up the state tills.
The horror stories of our neck-tied leaders who were allegedly helping themselves to millions of boondoggle while the hoi polloi were dying en masse due to Covid-19 are, despite the president’s denials, “living it up”.
So if you want to know how we got to where we are, switch to the Parliamentary Channel. Ignore the high-flown speeches and outworn jargon and pay attention to the faces.
Not so much because some are embroiled in all manner of scandal, but because they have had a hand in engineering a worsening culture of the aversion to educating oneself.
Plucked from oblivion in the communities they come from, they have made being in politics seem akin to having won the lottery. They drive flashy cars, imbibe the finest single malts and ensure their siblings and cousins of government jobs they often don’t even deserve, leaving the unemployed young graduate wondering why they bothered with university when ANC affiliation makes successful men of complete morons.
In the parallel universe of entitlement that they have created, hard work is an abomination and telling naked lies is in vogue – you know, towing the party line and all that.
These are the cadres who vow year in and year out to fix the hardscrabble of the masses if the day ever came and when it did, they turned to embracing the popular “it’s my turn to eat” mantra instead.
So don’t be surprised when once splendid tourist destinations like Gqeberha are now strewn with litter, or that the City of Gold is but a shadow of its former self, or that load shedding has become a national feature or that at least two in every four able-bodied youths are standing outside the local hardware store begging for a piece job.
These are the conditions we deserve because these are the leaders we continue voting for.
Mayaba is a freelance writer