June 16 has become an important moment for reflection in the South African political calendar. Since 1994, June 16, 1976 was viewed as a turning point – one that was seen by millions as a key political turning point in the struggle against apartheid, and one that would bring true liberation and freedom. For many, Youth Day became a day of celebration and remembrance.
However, in a very short period of time, much of the significance of the political moment lost its veneer. The so-called ‘post-apartheid’ generation of youth, like myself, were called the lost generation. We were seen as the youth and students that were only interested in “the good life”. However, when one really examines what has happened in the country over the past two decades, another picture emerges. Recent struggles across the country tell another story. At close examination, it is clear that many of the daily mobilisations, protests and struggles are led by young people. Many of these actions don’t even make the newspapers or radio stations. And although these are not the stuff of grand narratives of June 16th 1976 they are brave battles that youth are waging across the country
“We are tired of waiting for houses and land here in Suurbrak. The civic organisations talk a lot but no action. We stay in shacks and hokkies in our mothers’ yards. Its up to us to fight,” says Donavan Julius, a youth activist from Suurbrak.
Denico Dube, a youth activist and farm worker leader in the trade union CSAAWU pointed out that “the farm worker revolt that started in De Doorns and spread rapidly across the Western Cape was sparked by young women and taken forward by the youth. The older men and women who live and work on the farms are too scared of the bosses.”
And once again it is youth in Eldorado Park, Diepsloot, Ennerdale and in truth in all most every corner of the country that are at the forefront fighting for services, housing and land. And is it not youth who provide Malema’s EFF with a mass, dynamic and militant base? These ongoing struggles across the country are in sharp contradiction to what has been said by an older generation of South Africans who complain about us, referring to us as the lost apolitical and apathetic generation.
While it is true that mass unemployment crushes the hopes and dreams of young people and paves the way for high rates of violence, gangsterism and substance abuse, there is the opposite, namely young people picking up the baton and continuing the fight for a freedom still to be achieved.
Forty One years since the Soweto Uprising, the day that is now referred to as Youth Day, South African youth are presented with an opportunity to reflect on what it is to be young in a post-apartheid South Africa. For many of us, the born-free and rainbow nation mythology has been completely shattered as our lived experiences indicate that we are still not free.
As we reflect on Youth Day and commemorate the heroic contribution of young people in our body politics, we are mindful of their legacy and their continuing role in inspiring and building the consciousness of many of us who have been involved in student activism across the country.
Our new movements such as #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall lean heavily on the legacies of the past, especially the youth of 1976.
What is clear is that each generation, each political moment has its own specificity, and each historical conjuncture is different. It is important to learn and understand how different forces come together, to create the new terrain, on which a different politics must form up. The struggles of SASO against NUSAS in the 1970s around liberalism and White Supremacy led to the formation of the black consciousness movement. While some of our contexts have changed since the end of ‘formal apartheid’ we draw heavily on the intellectual and activist arsenals bequeathed to us by the ’76 generation.
While much has changed many things remain the same. We are still fighting against racism, sexism, for access to education, for decolonisation of the curriculum and the university and of society But we do so under different conditions and circumstances. Resistance can be spontaneous but mostly it seeks relevance and affirmation from the generations that went before.
There is an irony that confronts us. While we have taken to the streets and have shut down our campuses, it is the very generation of 1976 located in university management that is now subjecting us to the same brutality and repression that they faced when they confronted the Apartheid system. What does this teach us?
Social justice in a South African context has to do battle with extreme inequality. The challenges confronting young people is to understand the complex interplay between the national and global dimensions of the deep social divides and polarisation of South African life, which have created such marginalisation amongst the youth.
My involvement in #RhodesMustFall, #FeesMustFall and #EndOutsourcing has shown that we as young people are deeply committed to creating a better society, a society in which we finally see liberation from all forms of oppression and that we truly receive justice for all that we have experienced under colonialism, Apartheid, neo-colonialism and imperialism.
It is the same struggle of the youth of 1976 that has inspired us as young people to define our generational mission and fulfil it in the political struggles that we see being taken up across the country by young people. We have inherited a legacy of struggle, a struggle that we have to continue so that we can receive justice and gain true liberation.
By Alex Hotz
Project Demo finds the voices of young people in South Africa, amplifies their stories and turns their cause for change into a reality. Tell them your issue. They’ll take it on and campaign with you.