During the month of June, everyone is speaking about the youth — their importance and relevance. The government organises events, media houses have full spreads about the youth, and universities organise seminars — all under the banner of celebrating young people. One would be tempted to believe that the youth's relevance or role is only seen during the month of June, and throughout the rest of the year, they become an irrelevant bunch.
This is caused by the pitfalls of commemoration; it has the potential of reducing important issues to nothing more than the symbolism. Through repetition, commemoration eats away from the importance of issues and locks them in the past. This is why it is important that we constantly give content and context to what we commemorate and why.
Everyone knows the story of June 16, and I will not rehash it for the purposes of this article. What I want to highlight is how the day has become nothing more than a day of nostalgia, where we remember young people who laid down their lives in the pursuit of freedom. But beyond remembering and reflecting, how far have we, as the youth of today, gone in order to emulate the youth of '76 — and perhaps even improve from what they did?
This question is important, because it allows us to track where we currently are and why we are where we are. The popular narrative is that the youth of '76 were fighting against Afrikaans as the medium of teaching and learning in schools. This is true, but their claims were much deeper than that — they were continuing with the struggles that their mothers and fathers were arrested and exiled for.
They were fighting to reclaim a country that was under a brutal grip of a white minority. They were fighting for the complete emancipation of black people in South Africa. They applied pressure on the national government and renewed the hope of all black people in the country. Soon after the 1976 protests, government declared a state of emergency — and the events after that culminated into South Africa's first general elections.
The events of 1976 undoubtedly marked a turning point in the South African struggle. It is impossible to think or speak about where South Africa is as a country outside of the dedication and resilience showed by the 1976 generation. Post-1994 the biggest moments where the youth demonstrated unity and coherence were the Rhodes Must Fall (RMF) and Fees Must Fall (FMF) campaigns, which were also led by young people.
The impact of the youth is not only peculiar to South Africa.
The popular narrative of FMF is that it was a student movement fighting against the increment of university fees. The reality is that the struggle by these students was bigger than that — these young people were lamenting that freedom has not yet arrived for black people in South Africa.
They were making a statement that the hierarchies that existed during apartheid still exist today. They were saying that 1994 changed nothing, because black people still do not own the land and therefore the economy of their country. Today the land discourse is at the fore in this country precisely because of the FMF moment.
There are talks about land expropriation without compensation and wealth redistribution because of the young people of this country who participated in FMF. The race discourse has resurfaced, and racism is being addressed because of the tenacity and cohesiveness of young people who put their bodies and studies on the line. The impact of the youth is not only peculiar to South Africa.
Throughout the world, young people have been the drivers of change in their societies. They do this not only in politics, but in other fields such as the pharmaceutical industry, the economy and technology. I used the two examples of June '76 and FMF because they are the most immediate and easily memorable.
The power of the youth is an ambiguous thing. It is a symbol of change and progress, yet not infrequently it is accompanied by petty jealousies, distraction and narrow self-interest. These are the things that have the potential of stagnating and even crippling progress.
Young people must always be wary of this, to ensure that they are not ensnared by the traps and follies of youth. As Anton Lembede tells us, the youth must be disciplined, stoic and committed. We cannot allow ourselves to be a generation that is swallowed by excess and the vulgarity of opulence.
We must remember all the sacrifices that have been made, not only to commemorate but to understand that we, too, are capable of doing even more.
We are not the generation of slay queens and slay kings alone. We cannot allow the strides that we have made to be erased by a jealous generation that has run out of stamina. We ought to fight for our voices to be present in all sectors of society, churches, Parliament and in business. It is only when we have swelled all these ranks that we can begin shaping South Africa that we imagine.
In conclusion, no commitment is possible without a guiding ideology, coherent programme of demands, and a clear vision. We must therefore know where we come from, and that knowledge must guide us in how we shape South Africa.
We must remember all the sacrifices that have been made, not only to commemorate but to understand that we, too, are capable of doing even more. We must also remember that the present does not belong to us, but that we have borrowed it from those who will come after us. We therefore have a duty towards South Africa, to cultivate it and ensure that its people are free from all forces that seek to oppress them.