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16 June: So what, when the youth cannot freely express...

South Africa


16 June: So what, when the youth cannot freely express themselves 46 years later? 

Late afternoon in Soweto on 16 June 1976. (Photo: Peter Magubane)

Youth Day, 16 June, is here again – and we will go about it with the same activities and conversations as usual.

We will remember the 1976 student uprising and wear school uniforms as adults. Maybe we will also visit Orlando in Soweto and check out some museums. It becomes like a celebration and yet more than 500 lives of young people were lost.

We continue to lose lives of young people unnecessarily. But what stands out in this moment is how young people feel lost because they are unable to express themselves freely in fear of persecution or because no one is willing to listen. 

When do we stop and reflect on what 16 June really means to our youth? When do we stop and listen to them as they try to express themselves in many ways just to make sure we get them? Do they really have to go through so much for us to finally respect their freedom of expression? 

History has taught us the repercussions of silencing the youth. 

You will recall that on 16 June 1976 between 3,000 and 10,000 students mobilised by the South African Students Movement’s Action Committee marched peacefully to demonstrate and protest against the government’s directive. The march was meant to culminate at a rally in Orlando Stadium, but they were met by heavily armed police who fired teargas and later live ammunition on demonstrating students. This resulted in a widespread revolt that turned into an uprising against the government that spread across the country.

We learn from this history that our youth want to speak for themselves and be heard. They want to be free to express themselves on all issues and be included in decision making of importance to them. Just like us, they want their right to freedom of expression to be respected.

We know that freedom of expression is a fundamental human right that underpins most other rights and allows society to develop. It is an indicator of other freedoms and allows for meaningful participation in society. It is critical in supporting the development process and is a development goal in its own right. 

This importance is well articulated by Amartya Sen in his widely cited book, Development as Freedom, in which he argued that “expansion of freedom is both the primary end and the principal means of development”. The ability to express our opinion and speak freely is essential to bring about change in society.

Free speech has always been important throughout history because it has been used to fight for change. When we talk about rights today, they would not have been achieved without free speech. Think about a time from the past when you were not allowed to speak up on certain issues – one lesson from that thought could be that free speech is important for change.

However, free speech is not only about your ability to speak but the ability to listen to others and allow other views to be heard. Other people’s views, as conflicting as they may be, are important too as long as they do not consist of hate speech.  

Freedom of expression is important to everyone. No matter who you are, think about what freedoms of expression you want for your child in South Africa 45 years from now. What will you do to protect and uphold the right to freedom of expression?

Can we pause here and reflect on the suspension and reinstatement of paediatrician and gastroenterologist Dr Tim de Maayer, who was suspended by Johannesburg’s Rahima Moosa Mother and Child Hospital after he wrote an open letter published by Daily Maverick? I do not know if he is a youth, but his experience is a real case of silencing freedom of speech and ultimately freedom of expression by authorities. DM

Margaret Zulu is programme manager at the Campaign for Free Expression, a non-profit organisation dedicated to protecting and expanding the right to free expression for ALL and enabling EVERYONE to exercise this right to the full, whether by speaking out, by protesting, by revealing information, by blowing the whistle on wrongdoing, by arguing, debating, writing, painting, composing or just by shouting out an opinion.


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