15 June 2021 | Story Nombulelo Shange | Photo Supplied
A head and sholder photograph of Nombulelo Shange in front of the UFS Main Building.
Nombulelo Shange, lecturer in the Department of Sociology, says South Africa has betrayed the dreams of the youth of 1976.

Opinion article by Nombulelo Shange, lecturer in the Department of Sociology, University of the Free State.


Recent Stats SA statistics that put youth unemployment at 63.30% have recently re-ignited fees must fall protests because parents are feeling the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Many have lost their jobs and are struggling even harder to support their children’s education and the growing costs of service delivery. These are all examples of our society’s failure to realise the hopes and dreams of the youth of 1976 who sacrificed their lives so today’s youth would not have to. The news of the Johannesburg Stock Exchange market recovering is also another example of how we have betrayed the youth who are still suffering from the socio-economic blow caused by the COVID-19 lockdown, it shows a society more concerned with capital gain over the wellbeing of the youth. When young people protest or challenge society’s contradictions they are accused of being unreasonable and spoilt and told they do not understand the economic complexities of service delivery and resource redistribution. They retreat and watch as the markets thrive in the midst of a pandemic that has exacerbated their struggles. They get painted as rude, entitled, and ungrateful when the truth is they have been more patient than anyone else


The youth of today is just as capable

While society undermines the youth, we forget they were victorious against the oppressive apartheid regime. They created the conditions for the freedoms we enjoy. Today’s youth is just as capable, if not more so. They show their resilience and resourcefulness by surviving in an uncaring society that is riddled with inequality and poverty. Just like the brave young people who challenged apartheid, today’s youth has it within them to address the hangover from apartheid suffered by South Africa and made worse by COVID-19. Political uprisings like the Arab Spring, which later influenced the rise of Occupy Wall Street, were sparked by smaller injustices than what the South African youth are faced with today. But our youth are still waiting patiently in the hope that our leaders will one day eventually show up for them.

The Arab Spring protests started in Tunisia in 2011, after Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire as a reaction to growing unemployment, corruption and poverty in Tunisia. The protests quickly spread all over the Arab world and eventually sparked global discussion and protests. At the time the Arab Spring took shape, unemployment sat at between 13.05% and 18.33% in Tunisia. South Africa’s unemployment by comparison is soaring at 32.6% and creating the most unequal country in the world, with the widest gap between the rich and the poor.

The unwillingness to address these issues disempowers the youth and society as a whole, by extension. The material conditions of the youth have been threatened. We place a lot of importance on who we are based on what we have materially. So when we don’t have we start to question ourselves, to the point of questioning our existence and sense of belonging. We see this lack of material possession as a representation of our incompleteness. And I believe that is what the pandemic has done to the youth.


Incompleteness in relation to blackness

In many ways it has made us feel incomplete and has added further tensions and stress to issues the youth have always been concerned with – these are problems such as access to education, healthcare, employment opportunities and the existence of systems and structures that can build their general well-being.

Bantu Biko has had a discussion around completeness which helped us to further understand the Marxist material discourse in relation to our colonial and apartheid history. Biko talks about incompleteness or the feeling of incompleteness in relation to blackness. He says when black people, especially black youth, explore their surroundings they see a lack, they see incompleteness. They look around, see their streets and find them inadequate. They look at their schools and find they are incomplete. They look around and see their homes which are often inadequate, and look at their playgrounds which are in poor condition.

As they gradually move out of their neighbourhoods, they see a shift when they enter white neighbourhoods. Suddenly the schools are beautiful, ivory towers of knowledge. People’s homes are beautiful and welcoming. Playgrounds are well-looked-after with resources that you don’t find in black communities. Even the way that structures and systems function is efficient.

What then happens is that the black individual, black community and the black youth, by extension, conclude that blackness is incomplete. If our schools, homes, streets, playgrounds, hospitals and the structures in our communities are not functioning as they should. Then something is wrong with them. And by extension because the structures belong to us, then there is something wrong or incomplete with blackness.

Well-run, well-functioning, complete and adequate white neighbourhoods and systems lead one to conclude that whiteness is associated with goodness and completeness. When we start to question our completeness we are questioning our humanity, sense of belonging and our very existence. This is dangerous. I think this is one of the biggest challenges for the youth and is reinforced by our colonial and apartheid history and a failed revolution that has done little to address socio-economic issues.


The youth have always led the struggle

Any revolutionary action throughout history and across the world has always had the youth at the heart of the struggle, leading that struggle. This also includes our own apartheid struggle, not just the Soweto uprising of 1976. When the apartheid system had dealt with the elders and leaders of the revolution by imprisoning them, killing them and banishing them into exile, the youth were left behind to ensure the victory of the revolution. Even the Arab Spring protests were led by the youth. The current discourse on the climate crisis is being championed by the youth while sluggish ageing leaders debate whether a crisis even exists. If we are to be victorious over the struggles caused by COVID-19, youth empowerment and engagement should be at the centre of these interventions. Youth leadership in all industries and structures is crucial. Support of youth innovations and entrepreneurship will not only end poverty, but has the potential to launch South Africa into the continent and beyond.

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