Every year on the 16th of June we commemorate Youth Day, but hardly in the way it was intended.
On 16 June 1976, students in Soweto protested against the apartheid government’s use of Afrikaans in schools. We remember the name Hector Pieterson, however he was not the only anti-apartheid student activist to lose his life that day. Police forces killed nearly 600 students, and only a few lived to tell the tale, a tale that we must remember, as it encourages us to continue our fight for a better tomorrow.
As young people living in a young democracy, it is our responsibility to learn about the heroes who came before us, to understand their struggle and their sacrifice, and carry on their legacies in service to our democracy.
I am the Youth Activism Programme Manager at the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation, and I carry the lessons of the late struggle stalwart – Ahmed Kathrada in my service to the community and my activism. I owe a huge debt to the many people who shaped my being and gave their lives for me to be able to exercise freedom in ways many of them could not.
The youth of today have far more than the youth of yesterday. We have the freedom, the technology and social platforms to start conversations and connect with others to drive meaningful change in our society and in our country as a whole. But, there is still more that our government needs to provide, as promised in our Constitution.
The Kathrada Youth Activism Programme has been in existence for over three years now, and we organise youth across 25 communities. During this period we recognised that young people like me and you, are increasingly frustrated at the failures of the promised dream. We see phenomenal talent and promise in the communities we work in and yet equal to that, is a great sense of hopelessness.
Instead of our usual programmes, such as visiting memorial sites, this year we embarked on a much bolder project. We wanted to bring young people together and help raise their collective voices for change at the very seat of power- the head of the executive. And that we did!
The Youth Day Parade for Justice and Change, a youth-led initiative, galvanised over 90 organisational endorsements from civil society bodies, movements and community groups. On June 16, 46 years after the brutal murder of Hector Pieterson, we were ready to march together to the Union Buildings in Tshwane and demand change.
We called for policy and systemic change, not just a (false) promise for a better tomorrow.
With the pandemic and stifled economy, alongside the corruption that has been so deeply rooted in society as a whole, we feel the anxiety and pressure of what our futures may hold. Unemployment is increasing, skills are scarce and university fees are exorbitantly high. We cannot sit back anymore and let the plague of corruption and poor governance decide our futures anymore.
The world is progressing, new technologies are emerging and the so-called fourth industrial revolution is expanding. We need to keep up with the swift changes of the world so that we too, can progress and move together with a clearer vision of a South Africa that works for all of us and not just a few.
Take for example, climate change. It is no longer tomorrow’s problem; we are experiencing it right now. It is evident from the devastating floods that occurred in Kwa-Zulu Natal, and more recently, parts of Eastern Cape hitting day zero of water outages.
It showed us that ill-preparedness, lack of awareness and action, can result in massive damage and losses, especially to those most vulnerable. We therefore cannot wait for another disaster to strike before we take action. We need to act now.
While it is our collective responsibility as young citizens of this country to take matters forward, we need support from all spheres of our society: public, government, private, religious and civil.
We must believe in our collective efforts, and if we trust in our abilities to create jobs, provide homes, build the economy and restore the basic rights of all people- then we must be entrusted with that responsibility.
We must renew the spirit of collective action, and restore the bonds of solidarity that helped build a people’s movement for change. And, the youth must be given a seat at the decision making table.
At this #YouthParade, we handed over a memorandum to highlight the major crises we are faced with, and solutions for a better society and a more prosperous future.
Our call is simple. We call on the government to address youth unemployment and the very poor state of our public schools and hospitals. Michael Komape should not have drowned in a pit toilet, nor should another child in this democracy. We should not have to negotiate whether a pregnant woman should receive medical attention on a hospital bed, treatment on a hospital floor is an indictment to our hard won democracy. We cannot let another child lose their future because they do not have access to menstrual products, and above all we need to keep them safe from harm and violence that’s so prevalent in society. Finally, we cannot let criminality get in the way of accountability and see brave whistleblowers, like Babita Deokaran, lose their life for speaking truth to power.
We need to build and uphold the pillars of equality, dignity, justice, accountability and ethical governance to drive sustainable change. No person should worry about where their next meal will come from; each individual’s basic need for food, water, shelter, sanitation and education must be met.
We can only raise a strong generation of changemakers and leaders if we address the core obstacles hindering them today. They are the future doctors, nurses, engineers and public leaders, and we must give them the assurity that their skills and talents will be used for the full benefit of all the people and not just those who are close to power.
Let’s not be deterred by the difficulties we are facing as a country. The current government may have gotten it wrong and failed the majority of South Africans, but we the youth must take charge and lead. It is not too late to reignite hope and courage, and give ourselves the second chance we deserve to live with dignity in a just and equal society.
On June 16 we joined hands and were at the forefront of creating a renewed culture for political change. Through our social media platforms, our music, art, poetry, literature, sport and professional spaces, we can spark new conversations. We can build a space that is inclusive of all races, genders, religions and minority groups where we talk, play. We have the ability to innovate the kind of future we want for ourselves. We need you, dear young leader, to invigorate our Democracy, and renew that which has been lost and change that which has failed us.
Tomorrow lies in our hands, and we need to be proactive and create that change today!
Phambili young activist, Phambili.
By: Irfaan Mangera, Youth Activism Programme at the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation. His contribution forms part of a series of opinion pieces for the Defend Our Democracy Campaign, in the lead up to its conference on democratic change and renewal, set to take place on July 1-2 2022.