We should never forget the courage of those determined students who so bravely took on the superior military might of the apartheid state on 16 June 1976. We should never forget those 176 innocent souls who made the ultimate sacrifice for our freedom.
For these reasons, the month of June should remain an important month of commemoration when we honour the children of our land. We celebrate the little ones who give us joy, the biggies who ask the difficult questions, the teenagers who consistently test boundaries and the young adults who have come into their own.
South Africa’s national priority must be to truly set them free so that they may develop their full potential. South Africa’s biggest asset is our youth. They are our future leaders, the ones most capable of promoting progressive change and the ones who hold our economic and political future in their hands.
Today’s youth share similar experiences to the youth of 1976. Even though the spark that ignited their protest was the forced implementation of Afrikaans as the medium of instruction in all schools, they understood clearly that theirs was a struggle against social, political, and economic tyranny. Then as now, our youth live in a society where the rules are written to ensure that the wealthy 1% of the population prosper and grow, while the greater percentage of our youth live in poverty, suffer unemployment, and face bleak futures.
Then as now, our youth are not growing up in a healthy democracy but rather in a plutocracy or under a government that acts in its own interests and in the interest of only 1% of the population.
Then as now, the youth understand that the epic social, political, environmental and economic crises that confront our nation today are as much a result of the evil deeds of a morally corrupt ANC ruling party, as they are of gross inequality and the obscene concentration of our national wealth in the hands of so few.
Even though the apartheid state responded with extreme brutality against the students of 1976, their spirts were not dampened. The students of 1976 inspired the next generation of young activists and freedom fighters who in turn energised the formation of new grassroots organisations that gave colour and impetus to the creation of our rainbow nation in 1994.
The events of 16 June 1976 should reverberate with the same meaning and impact on today’s youth to inspire a movement for a radical change in government, one that will value the children of our land and empower them to create a positive long-term future for us all.
The preamble to our South African Constitution succinctly states that “South Africa belongs to all who live in it”. Nowhere in our Constitution does it prescribe that South Africans should worship money, accumulate obscene wealth to become overnight billionaires or hero worship the rich while oppressing, exploiting, and stealing from those who are poor.
Our Constitution does not say that 1% of the population should legislate for self-serving national policies that ultimately lead to the destruction of the environment and our planet. If ex-President Jacob Zuma’s actions exposed the highest levels of institutionalised corruption in the public sector, then President Cyril Ramaphosa’s have exposed the wanton corruption and money laundering that transpires in the dark, parallel economy of multinational corporations, banks, the private sector and among many of our world leaders.
It is not surprising that most eligible South African voters, including most of our youth, did not exercise their democratic right to vote for any political party in the 2021 local government elections. Our youth have been deprived of their dignity, birthright, and future.
The majority of South Africa’s youth do not live dignified lives, are not supported to flourish, nor contribute to the growth and development of our nation in any meaningful way. Our youth, our greatest economic asset, have been marginalised. They have lost hope and confidence in the ruling ANC government, in politics, state institutions and capitalist democracy.
After 28 years of capitalist democracy, South Africa is in an unprecedented crisis. The economy has collapsed under the weight of obscene inequality. Unemployment is at a record high with massive levels of poverty, while wages are low, crime is high and food insecurity threatens large sections of society. Petrol prices, transport costs and interest rates are high.
The war in Ukraine has sent shock waves across the planet causing a dramatic increase in food prices, and there is no end in sight to it. The price of electricity is high and unstable and water insecurity is high. To protect the capitalist system from collapsing and to mask the epic failures of our national government, the ANC’s ruling party subjects our nation to the whims of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund by embroiling us in trillions of rands of debt.
The ruling ANC party has hollowed out every institution of state, rendering them ineffective or bankrupt and incapable of performing their constitutional functions. South Africa does not have a capable state. All responsibility has shifted to civil society, which is left to find its own creative ways to protect our communities, feed the poor, maintain law and order, support the marginalised and deal with national disasters.
The massive convergence of all these crises dictates that we discard conventional wisdom and traditional responses. Instead, we require the most creative and groundbreaking solutions for the tsunami of challenges that confront us today. We need new ways of thinking about society, and we need to find the courage and steely determination of those students in 1976. Like them we must believe that we can take control of our lives and change the course of our destiny.
The events of 16 June 1976 still serve as a beacon of hope, as a touchstone in our long history of Struggle and must continue to inspire the student and youth movements of today. We have begun to see our 21st-century students in action, like those courageous youth who confront the police during service delivery protests in their communities.
Most of our youth may not have voted in the 2021 local government elections, but it was surely not because of apathy. Biggies can comment on the state of our nation – teenagers have passionate views and our young adults have already moved on in search of creative ways to improve the quality of life for us all.
There are many lessons that the youth of 1976 left as their legacy to the youth of today.
They demonstrated that the strength of youth lies in their energy, creativity, and innovativeness to challenge existing paradigms. Youth are poised as a new generation, to think outside of the box, to create totally new solutions and organisational formations that are so necessary to address the perfect storm of challenges that confront our nation.
Then, as now, South Africa did not have a capable state with the will to eradicate gross inequality and fundamentally restructure our economy, to avoid the continued brutalisation of South Africans and our environment. But youth have the power to create change.
The massive economic crisis unfolding in South Africa does not allow us the luxury of playing the long game, believing in “trickle-down theories” or even waiting until 2024 to remove the ruling ANC party from power. Never mind having to endure five more years of unstable coalition governments when votes for the ruling ANC party are expected to drop below the 50% mark in 2024.
South Africa requires urgent intervention now! Youth have the power to create real change and they will seize the moment.
The youth must know that they are not alone. Youth must join with other progressive forces in society who are fighting for change. On 1 May 2022 at a rally at the Royal Bafokeng Stadium in Rustenburg, workers unceremoniously expelled President Ramaphosa from the event.
Leaders of the ANC, SACP and Cosatu were dejected, confused, and even dismayed, but the ordinary rank-and-file workers from across politically divided trade unions were crystal clear in their common experiences and understanding that President Ramaphosa, the ANC ruling party and alliance partners in attendance are guilty of betraying the masses of ordinary South African workers.
The lesson from that day, for our youth and for society at large, is that the two biggest trade unions in the mining industry, rivals and politically opposed NUM and Amcu, found common ground and were united in strike action against the warlords of industry and were able to unite to focus on the common interests of their workers.
South Africa can only start to consider building a capable state when the ruling ANC government has been effectively voted from power. The challenge immediately is to once again grow our broad-based mass democratic movement with an active citizenry and deep layers of committed people’s leaders who will propel radical change from the bottom up. This will ensure that the interests of our people are secured, irrespective of the present or future governments that will assume the reins of power.
South Africa’s salvation lies in the hands of the masses of ordinary people whose voices must converge and find national expression in a new political party that shows no fear or favour. A new political party is needed that will protect and support all its citizens.
If 16 June 1976 was a catalyst for people’s war in the 1980s, then the youth of today have an equally challenging struggle against economic tyranny and obscene inequality. We must be unapologetic and there must be no ambiguity in that our priority is to eradicate gross inequality so that ALL people can live dignified lives.
South Africans must respond to the challenges of our time with renewed vigour, courage, and extraordinary creativity. We have a small window before 2024 to cultivate new blood, creatively bridge divides, to work together and strengthen the resilience of our civil society formations, to prioritise the interests of the poor over the interests of the 1%, value workers and their families over mega-profits, distrust the multinational corporations, believe in collective bargaining and commit to a democracy in which the 10 million economically inactive youth can truly flourish and where the spirits of our children can soar. DM