16 June 1976 represented a turning point in the history of South Africa. On that day, young people stood up and took responsibility for the change they believed in and wanted to see.
This year marks the 40th anniversary of the Soweto Uprising; a day when high-school students led a series of protests against the use of Afrikaans as the medium of instruction in all schools. It was a momentous occasion that will forever characterise a watershed moment in South Africa’s history. Given that so much was sacrificed at that time, South Africans must ask why young people continue to bear the brunt of social challenges such as unemployment, poverty and inequality.
Over the past few months, South Africa has seen an increase in protests focusing on the need for transformed, and free or low-cost education. These protests are often used as a tool to get those in authority - be it the government or university management - to address various concerns and challenges faced by students and marginalised low-income workers.
The recent protests were preceded by the large-scale #FeesMustFall and #RhodesMustFall protest movements that erupted across South African universities at the end of last year. These were primarily the result of substantial increases in tuition fees and continued racial inequality at institutions of higher learning. Students decided that enough is enough, and started to push back.
Following the #FeesMustFall movement, students took to the streets in protest against the continued use of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction at the University of Stellenbosch and the University of Pretoria. Much was written about how the prevailing organisational culture of Afrikaans universities continues to perpetuate racial division by restricting the integration of many black students. The issue of language barriers and continued racial tensions - seen most recently in the cases of Penny Sparrow and Velaphi Khumalo – highlight how the challenges of the past continue to haunt our democracy two decades on.
The youth have not only been at the forefront of protests related to education, but also in many community-based demonstrations. This was seen most recently in the town of Vuwani, where more than 20 schools were burnt to the ground, leaving thousands of students without schools to attend.
Young people have a huge role to play in shaping South Africa into a vibrant country with a prosperous economy. However, a lack of education and economic opportunities is resulting in high levels of frustration, and this is what leads to the violence and the destruction of infrastructure during some protests. Ironically, this only entrenches existing inequalities, as funds that could be used towards improving education and resources are, instead, diverted to repair the damage caused as a result of the violence.
The #FeesMustFall movement illustrated perfectly how discipline and resilience on the part of the youth could bring about positive change, as university fees were not increased in 2016. This was achieved without the use of violence and the destruction of infrastructure. Focused mass mobilisation across universities not only forced the government to stop the increase in higher education fees in 2016, but also resulted in a commission of enquiry to assess the feasibility of making higher education free in South Africa.
In addition, this movement highlighted how, by standing together, young people are a powerful force; and one that can bring about the change they so yearn for. The 2016 local government elections will be held on the 3 August. This presents young people with the perfect platform for using their power to effect change for the better through the ballot box.
As we celebrate Youth Day, we need to commemorate and reflect on the hundreds of young people who were shot and even killed for taking a stand against the hated apartheid system and the scourge of Bantu education. Let’s recognise that today’s young people have the same ability as those of the 1970s to force change for the better in South African society. However, there is no need for young or poor people to die at the hands of the state, as we witnessed in Marikana.
The youth must stand together for positive change by forcing those with political power to act in the interest of the public, instead of primarily in the interests of their families and friends. Our democracy means we do not need to use violence to achieve this. We can remove those who fail us through the ballot box.
Let’s hope this becomes increasingly understood. The use of violence will mean that we learnt nothing from those brave young men and women who sacrificed their lives for a better society 40 years ago. Through peaceful protest and political engagement, today’s youth can bring about a better tomorrow for us all.
- Lauren Tracey, Researcher, Governance, Crime and Justice Division, ISS Pretoria. This article first appeared in the ISS Today.