17 June 2021
Teboho Khiba
Teboho Khiba is a master's student in the Department of Sociology, University of the Free State.

Opinion article by Teboho Khiba, master's student, Department of Sociology, University of the Free State

This year’s Youth Day and Month mark the 45th anniversary of the ‘Soweto Uprising’, which happened on 16 June 1976. The day is commemorated in South Africa as the day on which the apartheid police massacred high school pupils in Soweto during a peaceful march in protest against the forced use of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction in black schools. This declaration seethed tension and resentment by black students, teachers, and parents alike, who viewed Afrikaans as ‘the language of the oppressors’ that delegated a racist curriculum designed to mould black children into servants for the ruling classes. The events of 16 June 1976 transformed the course of South Africa's history and marked the beginning of the ‘Soweto Uprising’, as frustrated learners targeted apartheid symbols – governmental offices, government vehicles, and municipal halls, which were first burgled and then set on fire. Violence erupted in Soweto and spread across South Africa. International movements supported the learners, putting pressure on the government until resistance movements were finally unbanned in 1990.

Crucial for today’s youth to organise and mobilise against the challenges the country faces
After 1994, 16 June was set aside as a public holiday in South Africa to honour the bravery, courage, and sacrifice of the bold youth constituents at the forefront of the struggle against apartheid and Bantu education. The whole month of June is devoted to supporting and celebrating all youth across the country. Young people are remembered for their determination to fight for their rights and for not flinching in the face of danger and violent oppression by the apartheid regime. In the same spirit, our youth should learn from the revolutionary and exemplary roles played by the generation of that time, who risked their lives to free our country from domination and white oppression and whose sacrifices contributed to putting the country on the correct path to building a non-sexist, non-racial, and democratic government.
It is therefore crucial that the youth of today should organise and mobilise themselves to advance the struggle against the challenges that the country continues to face in redressing past imbalances and building a nation, to the point where all youth must wake up every single day with more determination than ever before to make a mark in the development of our nation. The 1976 struggle should challenge today's youth to take ownership of the challenges that affect them directly, such as access to quality education and unemployment. Education is the most significant asset the youth should attain; it remains at the centre of building a generation of youth who will lead the country with conscientiousness and take it to new heights. Without the critical element of a sound education, opportunities are reduced, and society finds itself suffering from an identity crisis.

While access to education has been extended to all races since 1994 – which should have provided equal educational opportunities for all youth to pursue their dream careers and live better lives – inequalities in accessing educational resources in South Africa remain a challenge. Moreover, the gap is now being widened with the current COVID-19 pandemic, exposing the inequalities students and the rest of the society live in. Quality education remains to be accessed by the rich and privileged and not the poor. The main reason for this is because access to higher education in South Africa continues to entrench a status quo, whereby the more educated are likely to be the rich and the less educated to be the poor, which is worsened by the ever-increasing tuition fees. In addition, the socio-economic conditions under which black youth live make it more difficult for them to advance academically at the same pace as their white counterparts. Ask any poor black student in this country right now – with the current pandemic, many students from the previous year cannot proceed with their studies because of financial circumstances, and even those who are in higher education institutions today find themselves struggling to hold on to their funding since there was a reduction in funding for students in 2021.  

How should Youth Day be used by the youth of today?
These challenges strongly undermine the promises of the Constitution and what the youth of 1976 fought for. The majority of the youth also perceives it as a disjuncture between the promises of the Freedom Charter to provide free and compulsory education to the youth, and the realities in which the youth live, which makes the reality of freedom and democracy challenging to comprehend. What is even worse with the current epidemic, is seeing poor people and their children subjected to unemployment and poverty; some of them cannot afford the fees for their children, since most people work for subminimum wages. The question that arises is – if access to higher education is still limited for the black child in South Africa, how different is the current struggle from the 1976 struggle against Afrikaans.

How then, should Youth Day be used by the youth of today? This day should be used as an opportunity to remind South Africans of the importance of their youth and the power they have to address the concerns and challenges facing them. The main lesson the youth should take from the youth of 1976 is the courage and bravery they had in fighting for political change. Our youth must take the baton from 1976 and run with it to reach new heights. The actions of the youth of 1976 must be seen as an example to inspire and empower todays' youth so that they can develop a mindset to liberate themselves, to stand up and confront the challenges they face, and not to wait for the government to do things for them – just as their fellow students did in 1976.

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