June 16 marks the 41st anniversary of the Soweto uprising, an uprising that saw young people make their voices heard and put their bodies on the line to challenge the politics of apartheid South Africa. The young people of 1976 had two central messages: their rejection of inferior Bantu education and their demand for equal rights and an end to racial discrimination.
Forty-one years have passed since then. The world the Soweto youth demanded is now all around us. Or is it? We have a democratic government. Legalised racial inequality is now a thing of the past. The Constitution, our supreme law, says everyone is equal; that everyone has a right to a basic education and our courts have said that that means a quality basic education.
Today, young people are the majority in SA. According to the 2011 Census those under 30 make up 59,1% of our population. Young people have energy, imagination, conviction. Young people know how to express themselves. Young people make political points, through hair styles, fashion, music, poetry and theatre. And, just like the youth of Soweto in 1976, young people know what is going wrong in our country.
Yet young people are restless and deeply dissatisfied.
In April I watched the three of Sacred Heart College’s Matric Original Plays. They were titled Hashtag (about date rape), Comatose (about decadence of the Holy Zupta Empire) and The Future Ain’t What it Used to Be (about all sorts of pain, but particularly the global migrant crisis). These plays were written and produced by young people at Sacred Heart. They are brilliant. They are perceptive, satirical, biting.
The plays make you revolted with our country and ourselves. They are protest theatre of the 21st century. In the words of one of the judges of the plays, in their depictions of our reality “adults (the judges and audience) are being scared by children and not the other way round”.
Clearly, if these plays were anything to go by, young people are restless and dissatisfied. And so you should be. Not only is the future of young people threatened by global misrule and things such as climate change and environmental degradation, but young people bear the brunt of the mismanagement of our present.
South Africa 2017 is not a good place if you are young – especially if you are young, poor and a woman. I don’t want to depress you, but these are facts. Outside of our few cities unemployment among young people is as high as 60%. Rates of HIV infection among girls and young women are frightening, with estimates being that there are up to 200 infections a day. There is horrible violence of men against women and also of men against men.
In the words Bob Marley sang in Concrete Jungle there are “no chains around my feet but I’m not free”.
The question is why do we accept this, or more pointedly, why do you accept it?
Let me repeat: young people make up 59% of the population in SA. There are 11 million young people between the ages of 18 and 30 who have the right to vote. The median age of the population is 27. Yet older people over 60 make up 90% of our government!
The average age of the cabinet is probably over 60.
You could say that South Africa is once more under the blanket of a form of minority rule – older people minority rule.
I don’t raise these points as a joke. I mean for them to be seriously considered. Older people may have acquired wisdom and experience – although one wonders – but they also look at the world in a different way. They are more jaded, more cynical, less idealistic, more accepting of the abnormal “normal”, and more tolerant of inequality.
We have been brought up with the notion that with age comes wisdom and therefore the right to lead and form governments. In this regard South Africa is no different from the rest of the world. We accept this as if it is a “divine right of older people”. But it’s not! It’s a convention and conventions can be changed.
The truth is that young people need to tap into the “wisdom” and “experience” of older generations – but not surrender to its limitations.
So, as we approach another June 16, another youth day where politicians will spout predictable platitudes and pound you with promises, the question I want to ask is what are you going to do to change this? How can you change the future in the way the generation of 1976 did?
The big difference between your generation and that of the youth of 1976 is that you own a set of tangible, quantifiable rights. These rights are not abstract. They are located in law. There is a whole Constitution, our supreme law, that is full of your rights. Among many other rights, you have:
In these rights you have a latent and largely unused power.
You have the power to elect a government. Importantly, you have power over a government once it is elected. That’s why knowing, and knowing how to enforce the Constitution is so important.
But do you know the Constitution? Put another way do you know where to find your power?
The disaffection of youth is a global phenomenon. This is because youth have been hardest hit by neo-liberalism and corruption. However there are new signs that young people around the world are starting to use their power. In recent weeks young people have helped change the face of French politics with the election of Emmanuel Macron as President. Then on 8 June 2017 it was the votes of young people, particularly university students, who took away the majority of the Conservative party in England in what has been described as a “youthquake”.
In South Africa too we have seen signs that young people have started to find their power again, most notably through powerful and imaginative movements like #FeesMustFall and the rebellions against arbitrary rules and racism at schools and universities. Yet these movements need to grow bigger and bolder, develop innovative new strategies, if they are to succeed in bringing about change. The generation of 1976 fought for the right to vote, yet in the 2014 elections, for example, only 40% of eligible 18 and 19-year-olds registered to vote.
The youth of 2017 are not unique. Generations before you also learned that the future was never what you thought it should be. But your future is definitely getting more dangerous and threatening. If we are to shape the future, rather than just lament that “it ain’t what it used to be” young people are once more going to have to step up and make their voices and power visible in the struggles for social justice and equality.
Are you ready and willing? DM
Speech by Mark Heywood to Sacred Heart College assembly, 14 June 2017
"By scepticism...we arrive first at suspension of judgement, and second at freedom from disturbance." ~ Sextus Empiricus