In the spirit of Youth Day, I spent the weekend doing what I do best – engaging in the follies of youth. But trifling with tattoos, alcohol and friends, I realised that, like the students of 1976, we have to take action for our own futures and deal with the consequences. By GREG NICOLSON
After a week of working for the man (Ed: otherwise known as the editor, who so graciously approves these words, publishes them unchanged and otherwise keeps this writer employed and mostly alive) I woke up on the couch on Friday morning, tuned my favourite Beyoncé track, and made two decisions.
Firstly, cleanliness keeps me shackled to capitalist exploitation, so I decided not to shower on my weekend. Secondly, for two days I would escape the judgement of others (Ed: otherwise known as readers, who keep us all employed), so I would ignore society’s claustrophobic common sense. The best way forward, I figured, would be to get a tattoo on my finger.
I stood outside the parlour, smoking in a cloud of disdain. Wits students, Liberty staff and Southpoint employees scurried through Braamfontein, stuck in the rat race.
A finger tatt would be a symbol of adulthood, I reasoned. My past blotches were hidden in the secrecy of (earlier) youth, where I preferred to grunt rather than express myself. Sleeves with swimming Japanese carp were so overdone, I thought, and I wasn’t ready to join the 28s, so the neck wasn’t an option. So finger it was.
I took to the tattoo parlour, conscious of the jokes my old man would shout over family dinners. But I was acting against the oppressive conservatives, I reminded myself, trying to obstruct generational mix.
As a steam of body odour followed me up the stairs, I suspended my vow not to wash and scrubbed my hands before they’d be permanently scarred.
The tattoo artist was a member of the hairdressing school of conversation. We chatted like men meeting for coffee. “Work’s cool. Business is good.” “Are you going to the gig?” “Rad!” he exclaimed as the needle repeatedly pierced my finger.
It was the same finger, I thought (as Father’s Day was approaching) that wrapped itself around Dad’s thumb when I was an infant.
I wasn’t prepared for the stream of questions after I left my comrades in the parlour. “What does it mean?” should have been the one I anticipated; sadly, I didn’t. But like the sound of a child continuing to ask “why?”, the repeated queries about the meaning of the design followed me as I fled to the car. Clutching my motives to my chest, I opted to lie. “There’s this Maori custom…” I began. The car guard was sorry he asked.
After spending the day with my finger in cling wrap like a schoolboy’s lunch, I braved Youth Day with a girlfriend. She ignored my weekend uniform – a second-rate sportsman’s tracksuit – and didn’t ask any of the dreaded questions: what does it mean or, worse, why did I get the tattoo?
She did, however, kindly give me a promotional bottle of honey-flavoured liquor. Since it was Youth Day, we took to the bottle with vigour. It belonged in a VIP booth of BEEs, not on a kitchen bench in Brixton. But it was our day, my weekend. We saw no problem soaking ourselves in liquor we didn’t buy or deserve.
As the night approached, my outfit no longer sufficed, and I borrowed a pair of green corduroys to take on the town. They were four sizes too large. I spent the remainder of the evening exhibiting the new tattoo as I clutched my belt buckle, holding the pants so they wouldn’t drop.
But we still saw no problem with the free liquor, nor my pants dropping, as I enjoyed the night. And why should we? Those in power – those who control the space into which youth are trying to carve their way – drop their pants as though they’ve never seen a belt. They’ve traded the revolutionary colours of their youth for Johnny Walker Blue in their middle age.
Youth Day commemorates their struggle. The lucky ones earned a life of privilege and an input in the country’s future. The majority sacrificed their own ambitions so that those after them could have more access to opportunities.
But the struggle continues, and for most youth it’s as hard now as it ever was. Those of us who can celebrate with booze and tattoos are lucky. The rest are held back by a dysfunctional education system. Even the tertiary educated lack experience, and the tearful reality would drive anyone to the bottle: many of SA’s young people will never get a job.
As much as we like to draw parallels of the lack of opportunities between the youth of today and those of 1976, they’re not the same. The environments are fundamentally different. However, like youth all over the world immersing ourselves in booze, tattoos and various levels of protest, our follies remain our forte. While we still have our revolutionary streak, we have to confront the challenges we face and attempt to overcome them. The students of the Soweto uprising met, head-on, the obstacles built by the government (and sometimes upheld by their communities and their parents). We need to do the same.
June 16, 1976, was an example of youth taking action for what they believed in. As youth, we don’t know the answer, whatever the generation. But we have to step out from the systems that govern us and challenge the blueprint condemning so many of our friends to a life with so few opportunities. There’s a reason for rebellion. It heralds change. We have to challenge the status quo.
The ironic endpoint of a day of conscientious inaction: concluding that action has to be taken. As youth, we don’t have a choice; we have to live with the consequences of our decisions and work through the next struggle.
Whether our choices are superficial – a snap decision to get a tattoo – or significant – relating to actions on the “second transition”, the youth wage subsidy, or deciding whether to have sex – our salvation lies in the doing. Youth is too fleeting not to act. DM
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Nicolson left his hometown of Melbourne to move to Johannesburg, beset by fears Australia was going to the dogs. With a camera and a Mac in his bag, he ventures out to cover power and politics, the lives of those included and those excluded. He can be found at the tavern, searching for a good story or drowning a bad one.
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