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June 16: Looking back in anger — but for SA’s youth, the present and future also hold little cause for celebration

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Professor Dr Omphemetse S Sibanda is a Professor of Law and the Executive Dean of the Faculty of Management and Law at the University of Limpopo. He holds a Doctor of Laws (in International Economic Law) from North West University, a Master of Laws from Georgetown University Law Centre, US; and an LLB (Hon) and B Juris from the then Vista University, Soweto Campus.

There is a plethora of reports detailing the suffering of South African children, yet we commemorate their struggle without fail each year with no significant change in their lives. The situation of children across the African continent is not much better either, and many continue to have their human rights violated.

On Wednesday, 16 June 2021, South Africa and the world will commemorate the 45th anniversary of the 1976 Soweto uprising, the day now known as Youth Day in South Africa. The day is also recognised as International Day of the African Child, which focuses on the barriers African children face when it comes to receiving a decent education. 

This year’s theme for the International Day of the African Child is “30 years after the adoption of the Charter: accelerate the implementation of Agenda 2040 for an Africa fit for children”. 

As we are about to mark Youth Day, I would like to speak on behalf of every child in South Africa and every youth who is denied full enjoyment of the privileges, freedoms and rights guaranteed in the Constitution of 1996. 

The main question is whether there is anything the youth of this country need to do other than remember the lives lost on that day 45 years ago. Specifically, we must determine whether the contentious issues that led to nearly 30,000 pupils from Soweto joining hands in a historic protest march and locking horns with the apartheid police — with about 700 people losing their lives and considerable destruction of property — have been resolved. 

The Daily Maverick article on 12 June 2021 by Greg Nicolson and Bheki Simelane, “Young, gifted, black and still left behind: South Africa’s youth struggle continues 45 years later”, is among those related to June 16 that caught my attention. Three issues stuck out. First, and as expected, the iconic Sam Nzima photo of the lifeless body of 12-year-old Hector Pieterson being carried by Mbuyisa Makhubu, his distraught sister Antoinette Sithole by his side, at the start of the 1976 Soweto uprising.

The iconic picture in Daily Maverick is contained in a larger image showing a young child with his hands behind his back as though the child is marvelling at the picture. The second is the blurb of the article: “Anger and bitterness linger on the anniversary of the 1976 Soweto uprising. Some say the youth have it better than then; others say there’s just a different oppressor.”

The third observation is that the title of the article borrows, in part, from the title of the song by the magnificent songstress Nina Simone, “To Be Young, Gifted and Black”, with a twist, telling of what the authors are about to relate.

The comments that followed this article are very interesting, indicative of both the unity and division in the country when it comes to apartheid’s sins and the failures of successive post-1994 administrations led by the ANC. 

You know we are still far from redressing the crimes of apartheid when there is a demeaning comment that considers decolonisation of education to mean “re-establish the old tribes and go back to the ‘old ways’ ”.

Back to the song, “To Be Young, Gifted and Black”, and what it means to the youth of today, particularly the black youth: most of our young people will know little about this song by Simone, and some might not ever have heard it. The song, originally recorded and released by Simone in 1969 and later considered an anthem of the civil rights movement in America, has been covered by notable artists including Houston Person, Donny Hathaway and Aretha Franklin. What’s interesting about Franklin’s rendition of Nina Simone’s masterpiece is that her singing in one verse will remind you of the energy in some of the singing in the movie Sarafina.

Two verses from “Young, Gifted and Black” are relevant to the question I posed at the beginning of this opinion:

“You are young, gifted and black
We must begin to tell our young
There’s a world waiting for you
Yours is the quest that’s just begun 

“How to be young, gifted and black?
Oh, how I long to know the truth
There are times when I look back
And I am haunted by my youth.”

How I wish Simone was also right about South Africa’s young, gifted and black children — that there is a world waiting for them and sanctuary for them when they are feeling low. 

The truth is that there is generally no better world waiting for them: even our government never hesitated to stop the world to wait and provide relief to victims of apartheid. In 2003, and widely reported, former president Thabo Mbeki publicly decried as completely unacceptable the adjudication of apartheid crimes in “foreign courts which bear no responsibility for the wellbeing of our country and the observance of the perspective contained in our Constitution of the promotion of national reconciliation”.

In Mbeki’s view, the South African government was best suited to address apartheid’s legacy. But so far, the legacy of the June 16 massacres has not been dealt with convincingly and satisfactorily. 

The South African government at the time considered foreign investment more important than redressing injustices of the past. The minister of justice at the time, Penuell Maduna, filed a declaration with the US district court discouraging the court from hearing the case, claiming the litigation would potentially discourage foreign investment in South Africa.

The only solace was that this position was not supported by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). The chairperson of the TRC, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, submitted a brief stating “there was absolutely nothing in the TRC process, its goals or the pursuit of the overarching goal of reconciliation, linked with the truth that would be impeded by this litigation. To the contrary, such litigation is entirely consistent with these policies and with the findings of the TRC”.

As if running from apartheid brutality was not enough, South African children and youths still have to run from the hardships visited upon them under the democratic government, whether it is being forced to learn Afrikaans or study under trees or in dilapidated school structures. 

Without absolving the apartheid government for the inhumane way in which the black population of the country was treated, an indisputable reality is that there are intermittent failures in leadership at the moment — failures to meaningfully alleviate and redress the challenges faced by our country’s children and youth. Some may say, however, that this criticism is unfair given the strides made by the ANC-led government to improve the lives of many black South African children and South Africans in general.

However, recognising the validity of this criticism, a court in Equal Education and Others v Minister of Basic Education and Others (17 July 2020) rebuked the government for failing to look after the best interests of the children. In this case, the organisation Equal Education and others approached the court for an order to be issued against the minister of basic education and the MECs of education of eight provinces, declaring that they are in breach of their constitutional and statutory duty to ensure that the National School Nutrition Programme provides a daily meal to all qualifying learners, whether they are attending school or studying at home as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The Western Cape did not receive the same rebuke from the court because its government had publicly committed to providing a daily meal to all qualifying learners, “whether they have returned to class as Grade 7 or 12 learners”. Sadly, in the case of the other eight provinces, delinquent MECs only started acting when court papers were served on them.  

“The fact that only court papers spurred on activity to feed hungry children, leaves doubt with this court whether, on its own, the department will perform. 

“Continued breach by the minister and MECs will leave millions of children hungry through the cold winter and as long as lockdown lasts. 

“Hunger is not an issue of charity, but one of justice,” said the court, correctly observing that “children are categorically vulnerable… Poor, hungry children are exceptionally vulnerable. The degree of the violation of their constitutional rights is thus egregious.”

The order of the court demonstrated the suspicion with which the word of the government must be viewed. Even the courts cannot trust the government because it tends to say one thing but does another.

There is a plethora of reports detailing the suffering of South African children, yet we commemorate their struggle each year without fail, with no significant change in their lives. These reports include Amnesty International’s report, aptly titled, Broken and Unequal: The State of Education In South Africa, which essentially attests that even today “a child’s experience of education in South Africa is still dependent on where they are born, how wealthy they are and the colour of their skin”.

A further example, Child Poverty in South Africa: A Multiple Overlapping Deprivation, released by Unicef in July 2020, narrates a story of poor children overwhelmingly located in rural areas and living in the traditionally poor provinces of Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal and Limpopo in households headed by black African women.

So, what gains are we celebrating on June 16? 

Perhaps the commemorations and celebrations should highlight the challenges South African youths still face. 

Given a platform to express my views on the day, I would quote the Unicef report that “black African children experience poverty rates between 65% and 70%, which is almost double that of coloured children (38% on average). 

“White children have the lowest deprivation headcount ratio, and only 9.2% of these children between the ages of 13 and 17 are considered deprived (having at least three deprivations across the seven dimensions).” 

So, the inequalities of the apartheid past are still much alive, even after the dawn of non-racial democracy. 

The situation of children across the African continent is not much better either. Like South Africa’s Youth Day, the Day of the African Child will see little more than hollow celebrations. 

For instance, at a continental level, several of the 10 aspirations identified by the African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, as part of the theme for the commemoration of the Day of the African Child in 2021, are largely unfulfilled. 

These aspirations include that every child must be assisted to survive and have a healthy childhood; be allowed to grow up well-nourished and with access to the necessities of life; benefit fully from quality education; be protected against violence, exploitation, neglect and abuse; and be free from the impact of armed conflicts and other disasters or emergency situations.

African children continue to have their rights violated, despite the many continental instruments conferring on them key human rights and freedoms.

As they celebrate or commemorate Youth Day and the Day of the African Child, my advice to our children — black and white — is that they must play this great song by the great songstress, Nina Simone. They must internalise what it meant or should mean, irrespective of their colour. Finally, they must be prepared to face the possibility of having to reflect in the future on the same sentiment as did many of us from the old generation: “There are times when I look back, And I am haunted by my youth.”

To the ANC-led government and all opposition parties: please, for once do something or say something that will end with tangible results. It is no use politicising the challenges faced by our youth today when you are doing nothing about it. Think positively and act positively.

I know as politicians you are fond of singing. Let me help you along by asking you to sing or listen to the 1971 song by John Lennon, Imagine, released five years before the 1976 Soweto uprising.

If you can imagine a new South Africa and want to help our youth as you always promise to do, you can make a start by considering what is in the best interest of South African children. DM

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  • This opinion should be seen against the background of that famous ANC leadership and its junior partners the EFF comment … to the effect of “we did not join the ANC to remain poor !” It explains much of what the focus is upon !

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