The youth today are no longer satisfied with just having equal rights on paper. They want equality that is tangible and material. And their anger is perfectly justified.
At some point, you think that nobody else shares your perspective on the world, that conjecture has transformed memory into romanticised, farcical fantasy, rather than a true archive of the past. I was only twelve years old when South Africa went through its democratic transformation, every South African had the right to vote for the very first time and we spoke of the rainbow nation, we had a new flag and Madiba was to lead a reconciled, re-unified nation. The 1995 Rugby World Cup victory added to the euphoria and so did the 1996 African Cup of Nations. But now, two decades later, the born-frees are seriously pissed off and those who were the custodians of this democracy really need to ask themselves: what happened to anger them so?
The period leading up to this transition, and soon thereafter, was no picnic either. I remember sitting in the back seat as my father drove past heavily armed AWB members, parked along the side of public roads, waving their poorly designed swastika. The conflict between the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) and the ANC was claiming hundreds of lives in the townships and rural KwaZulu-Natal, and crime escalated. Racial tensions escalated as formerly subservient black people had now found their voice, and it was a bitter pill to swallow for those who were once large and in charge under Apartheid. But there were good moments too; many white faces could be seen at ANC rallies, interracial couples were a new, welcomed public spectacle, and children from the townships went to multi-racial and ‘Model C’ schools, where they could access quality education.
What 1994 was supposed to bring with it, was equality. History shows that any country going through a human rights transformation rolls out civil-political rights as first generation rights. These are the easier rights to realise; the right to equality – no matter your race, religion, gender or sexual orientation – the right to vote and the right to dignity. These are intangible rights, the type of thing that recognises that your humanity is no different from that of someone else with a different melanin concentration or genitalia to yours. But as the years passed, as history teaches, it was no longer good enough to simply have the vote or gender and racial equality; now the people needed houses, schools, quality education – healthcare and all other similar socio-economic rights that require government spend.
So what happened over the last two decades that ticked off a bunch of kids who didn’t see Apartheid and arguably inherited the freedom Madiba spent 27 years behind bars for? Well, the government spent money on the people, and smart-arsed – but true – comments about maladministration and corruption aside, government has largely put their money where their mouths are. According to the Department of Human Settlements, 3.7 million houses and services sites were delivered, giving approximately 12.5 million people access to accommodation and a fixed asset. Of which 56% of these subsidies were allocated to woman-headed households.
Brilliant, right? Well, go to the outskirts of Cullinan, where the world’s largest diamond was discovered East of Pretoria in 1905, and you will find a township in the middle of nowhere. Here, hundreds out of the 3.7 million “human settlements” stand in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by a few dairy farms. The nearest central business district is a lengthy taxi ride away, let alone tertiary education opportunities, and unless you count some of the small informal businesses being run out of shipping containers and backyards, there are hardly any entrepreneurial opportunities. As you drive through this township, the RDP-styled houses makes it all too obvious that it was not the Apartheid bunch that built this township as far from the white folks as possible, but the new regime, the bunch supposed to right previous wrongs.
The point is that for most of these “born-frees”, the status quo has remained unchanged. The hovels they occupy are still in the antiquated Group Areas Act-allotted, geographic spaces that were defined by the Verwoerd gang. For decent education, private schools and former ‘Model Cs’ still rule the roost, and in the event that you need healthcare, without inordinate amounts of money or a medical aid – with gap cover – you are most likely screwed.
For us “in-betweeners” – the types that were too young to dodge Apartheid’s bullets and too old to be completely untouched by its legacy – we understood that ‘Model C’ schools were meant for those that exited Apartheid moneyed and in order to someday get the house, medical aid and private education for our children, we had to depend on our own steam. The youth of today don’t simply have a sense of entitlement and lack our will to work, their anger is justified! This government was supposed to equalise education. Remember the National Health Insurance Scheme? Whatever happened to that?
Those that fall into my age group, and slightly older, didn’t expect much; we were the bunch that were happy to see our first generation rights realised. This younger bunch understand that equality is pointless on paper alone; they want to see it realised via tangible means. For them equality means meaningful jobs and better economic opportunity. They also helped us realise that there is this notion of white privilege; the advantage one gains through an accident of birth, an accident that means that you are more likely to gain a quality education, that you have a greater advantage in life because a system based on racial segregation guaranteed employment and thereby economic opportunity for your parents.
The current regime’s redress plans have failed tremendously from Affirmative Action, to Black Economic Empowerment, to EE and B-BBEE. For some, like the Sexwales, Motsepes and Ramaphosas, all these redress programmes worked out swimmingly, but they failed to filter the money down to the majority. Again, it is clear, these youngsters have quite a bit to be pissed off at: their elders failed to give them the freedom they were supposedly born into.
The anger of the youth is more palpable than ever. Those on our university campuses and who are politically active are hurling their anger at statues as symbols of an oppressive past. Others in many of our townships across our country express their anger through violent and destructive protest for the most basic human rights such as water, sanitation and housing, whereas others very misguidedly direct their anger at foreign nationals, blaming them for their lack of economic opportunity.
For those of us behind eight-foot walls, trimmed with electric fencing, in middle-class suburbia, this anger is a news event we read about or see on television. The reality, however, is that it is real, it is growing in intensity and it is a ticking time bomb, one that needs diffusion soon. The fact is that our past has created the present and those in this dispensation, tasked with fixing yesterday’s mess, often fail to account for their own shortcomings and throw the past back into our faces. Being ahistorical is the worst type of ignorance as well, because it fails to recognise that it was a system designed to keep people poor and in servitude, but for leaders to use it as a crutch for their failures has left young people with a deep-seated anger at the past, but no real plan for the future.
So Rhodes must fall, but then what? This is what the current anger fails to address. Many hail the anger of the youth as a good thing, looking to what was dubbed as the ‘Arab Spring’ as the final destination, but look at the Spring two years on – and it was much ado about nothing, but greater repression and instability. Instead, the vigour for greater social justice should be harnessed for their and the broader nation’s growth and forward trajectory. The question is, how? DM
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Gushwell F. Brooks is an LLB graduate from the University of the Witwatersrand. He did not go on to become an attorney, but much rather entered the corporate rat race. After slaving away for years, he found his new life as a talk show host for Talk Radio 702 and 567 Cape Talk.
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