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Opinionista

Twenty-five years later: A youth no longer at ease

Wandile Ngcaweni is a Junior Researcher: Political Economy at the Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection. He is also the co-editor of the book " We are No Longer at Ease: The Struggle for #FeesMustFall" (Jacana Media).

Is there really any such thing as a ‘born free’ South African? With youth unemployment and voting apathy sky high, and racially skewed socio-economic inequality, perhaps ‘born free’ South Africans should rather be called ‘post-apartheid’ South Africans.

This speech was delivered at Jeppe High School for Boys at the school’s Freedom Day celebrations Assembly on 26 April 2019

I am here to commemorate an important day with you, Freedom Day. On 27 April 1994, as I’m sure you know, all South Africans for the first time stood in long queues to exercise their right to vote. This day marked a turning point in our history. For the first time, the majority of South Africans claimed back their humanity and citizenship. No longer a people to be oppressed, raped, murdered, dispossessed or – as we millennials say it – “cancelled” as nonentities in their own country.

This democratic right to exercise the urgency to vote that we now like to take for granted meant so much that our forebears were willing to spend decades in prison and lose their lives fighting. I think Nelson Mandela’s own words carry forward the mood of total unease of the nation before 1994, when just before he was sentenced to life imprisonment at the Rivonia Trial he said:

“Freedom is an ideal for which, if needs be, I am prepared to die.”

The democratic constitutional government that the vote of 27 April 1994 ensured was instrumental in ushering in a new dawn of non-racialism, at the same time claiming back our humanity: As our Constitution says, “We the people of South Africa” and “South Africa belongs to all who live in it, united in our diversity”.

This was 25 years ago. I was to be born five days later on 2 May 1994 to a country overflowing with hope and a promise of a better tomorrow, “born free”, as we are called. Set to never experience the pain or trauma of apartheid injustices such as dispossession, racism, and socio-economic inequality. Born to a promise that all would have abundant opportunities to realise their dreams wherever they were born or which family they were born to.

But 25 years later it seems these “born frees” are not at ease. We celebrate this Freedom Day in the shadows of a young democracy that has youth in a nervous condition. Voter apathy among the youth is so unbelievably high that you have to realise “something is still terribly wrong in our country” as Malaika wa Azania noted in her book, Memoirs of a Born Free: Reflections on the Rainbow Nation.

And sure enough, with unemployment rates upward of 30% for youth, young people have little to look forward to in this democracy. Opportunities are few and far apart.

No one in this country has really been “born free”. At least no young person I know of. Yes, we are born in a “post-apartheid”, democratic South Africa where we are protected by a constitution that “recognises the injustices of our past” and promises to “heal the divisions ”. The truth is… we are still battling to fix the injustices of the past and while we fail at that, divisions are growing instead of closing. Socio-economic inequality in this country is still expressed through the medium of race. It seems the more things change, the more things remain the same.

We can share public facilities like benches and toilets, but still we have to manoeuvre around structural and institutional racism. In other words, where racism is most inhuman, there have been no changes.

Nothing really highlights the trouble basic education is in like the fires the Gauteng Education MEC, Panyaza Lesufi, has to extinguish yearly between parents and schools who want to exclude through the language of instruction.

We attend “prestigious” former model C schools like Jeppe High School, but we are still not at ease. Everywhere we go we are reminded that we do not belong. Why do you think that is?

Our existence in these schools forces us to have second identities. Black students assume different personas inside the gates of these institutions than in their communities – sometimes even their homes.

When you walk around the corridors and passages of the schools you are met with pictures of white faces, some dating back many decades, ghosts of a racist past. Evidence that this school, as much as we love it, was only for a certain race, the white race. if you do not belong to that race as a student you don’t belong, you are out of place.

In my time at the school, students who did not play a sport or participate in extramural activities were called “scraps”, unworthy of recognition as members of the Jeppe family. All with no thought being spared to how it is impossible, let alone unsafe, to leave the school premises after practice at 5.30pm to take two taxis or a train home or that Umalume we transport leaves the gate 4pm with or without you. I wonder if schools such as Jeppe have come to grips with the fact that democracy means they have to align their rules, cultures and traditions to the realities of diverse South Africans.

I wonder if the heads of sport at the prep, boys and girl school know that a cricket bag does not fit in a taxi and that school fees at Jeppe are already a huge financial burden, so purchasing those rugby socks and jersey or that expensive hockey stick is actually practically impossible?

Teachers and members of the Gauteng Department of Education (GDE): You need to take your responsibility to teach, care and protect seriously! Crime and human rights are being violated under your noses and you cry ignorance.

As a young person, I am saddened to hear the news of violence, abuse and sexual assault at our schools.

There’s that school in Parktown that is always in the media for sexual misconduct, teachers molesting students. But we cannot pretend similar things have not happened or are not happening at the Jeppe schools. What is this patriarchal culture being protected and at what cost? Boys and girls are suffering in these schools and cannot speak because of toxic masculinity sentiments like “man up and shut up”. We must reflect on patriarchal culture and how we can remove it from our democratic society if we are serious about a better future.

I know you don’t like to talk about these things on such a happy occasion because you absolve yourself of responsibility for what happens in other schools. Well, it’s time that you as servants of your country, entrusted with the grooming of this generation, exercise some oversight over your own peers in other schools and report violations of human rights and abuse of power over learners. Not doing so would be jeopardising the prospects of a generation. The trauma that these young men and woman go through is one that keeps the country in nervous conditions. Remember it is the lessons we learn at these schools that shape our behaviour in society.

It is not enough to celebrate the successes and failures of freedom in the national context. We must bring it here to this community of learners. Look how racially, culturally and religiously diverse this Jeppe family is. Look how eager these pupils are to celebrate and learn about Freedom Day even though their lived experiences in society, including at the school, are extremely traumatic? 

In October 2016, Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh delivered a valedictory speech at St Johns College titled “Freedom is a Scary Sacred Thing”. Just like I have done here, he recalled the uncomfortable realities of the school, but he also drew the students to the fact that although it is scary and unthinkable to prevail in these conditions of slow reach of human rights and democracy, what makes freedom in South Africa sacred is that we still have the desire to push through the ceiling, we all want to make sure that the generations which follow have it better.

It is not a bad thing that we reject the idea that those born after 1993 are born free. This is because this group of young South Africans has not been reliant on anyone to challenge the status quo and bring about change. This youths’ unease is pushing and stretching our democracy to its logical conclusion, total liberation and freedom. This youth is leading, not dwelling on sentiment.

I hope that this generation still believes in the idea of being born free. I hope this generation can reflect on the role they can play to make sure people born this election year are, for all intents and purposes, free: True born frees.

I have stood here and spoken about the not-so-perfect parts of the school, because those are the conversations we hardly ever have at Jeppe. I have also chosen to speak about the negative realities of the country in democracy, because there is always space to be critical even in times of celebration.

But you must understand that with all the noise and all the chaos, you young people still have responsibilities.

So, this Freedom Day we should think and remind ourselves of the huge collective and individual responsibility we have in order to do better for South Africa.

You, young ladies and gentlemen, have to ensure you are on your best behaviour and do your absolute best at everything you do outside and inside the classroom.

You would be doing yourselves a great disservice if you left the corridors of this school without finding yourselves. Find your passion. Find your calling. Find your place and nurture it while you are here so you can be ready to play your part in contributing to a non-racial society.

You as young people have a responsibility to listen, engage, question and never be afraid of ideas, even those THEY (teachers) disagree with. Never let anyone tell you which questions to ask, especially those political questions. My advice to you is to never silence yourself. Be provocative and speak truth to power.

We live in the age of the smartphone and fast internet technology. The way information and knowledge are transferred makes it easy for us to learn outside the classroom. You must never stop being hungry for knowledge. Satisfy yourself with the knowledge you get in the classroom, but also be intentional in using the benefit of technology for reading and learning.

You matrics should go out and vote on 8 May 2019. I hope you have all registered. You have a responsibility to ensure this democracy grows stronger and delivers liberation to all South Africans as it promises.

Nothing is too difficult when we reflect as fellow South Africans. So please wake up on 8 May and go vote for a better South Africa.

Listen to that voice.

Nothing is too difficult for the brave. DM

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