In this talk, I will firstly provide some background on the history of Youth Day and it’s equivalents in other countries. Secondly, I will summarize the significance of Youth Day in South Africa and discuss what it means to be a youth. Thirdly, I will address some of the problems that young people are dealt in the current sociopolitical climate. Lastly, I will provide a few steps as to how the youth can mobilize themselves to be more active as citizens.
When examining Youth Day and reading up on the topic, I found that it is not a celebration endemic to our country – it is one that is also celebrated in many other nations. There are around 18 other countries that also celebrate their youth, and all for different reasons. In Guatemala for instance, Youth Day is simply to give young people a day to celebrate the start of spring. But many other countries, such as our own, pay homage to previous struggles led and fought by the young generation of that time.
China, as an example, celebrates Youth Day as a way of remembering the May Fourth Movement of 1919. This movement was led by students and was in favour of propogating democracy, modern science and populism over the traditional Confucian values that China held at the time. The actual protests were in response to China’s participation in the Treaty of Versaille that ended World War I. Amongst other issues, students were particularly outraged that their leaders had essentially given up Chinese territory to the Japanese. This outrage saw some 4000 students from various Chinese universities and colleges take to the streets of Beijing in protest.
As a result, Chinese officials withdrew their previous agreements and many cabinet officials were forced to resign. China retained their territory and the political context shifted towards a more democratic and mass-based structure. A century later, the youth are still given the 4th of May as a holiday to remember those who fought before them and as a way to celebrate all young people in their own respect.
Moving closer to home, I’m sure everyone enjoyed the day off on Monday as we celebrated the young people of South Africa. We commemorate the day in remembrance of the Soweto Uprising that took place on June the 16th 1976. The protest saw some 20000 black students taking to the streets of Soweto as a response to the 1974 introduction of Afrikaans as the sole teaching medium in schools. This was a cruel extension of the Bantu Education Act and served as a way of trying to keep black youth under control. Unfortunately, the demonstrations resulted in violence, as police open fired on protestors in an act of terror. Almost 200 youth came to their demise by the hands of the apartheid police and many more left the protests injured. Depsite the many lives that were lost that day, it marked some sort of a turning point in the political climate of apartheid South Africa. International boycott’s stregthened, the Rand’s value dropped and many more youth were inspired to become more active and involved in the struggle for freedom. Even though we only achieved political freedom some 18 years later, the voices and efforts of young people as displayed in the Soweto Uprising were an undeniably powerful force in working towards this freedom.
It’s all good and well to say that the youth of today need to stand up in a similar fashion to those who came before us, but at the same time, it’s quite difficult to expect this from every young person. What many people don’t take cognisance of, is that the experience of being young is highly circumstantial, especially in South Africa. This can often affect how much a young person can do, how they live their lives and how they choose to involve themselves in society.
If we compare a priveleged young man from the suburbs to a disadvantaged young man from the townships, we can really put things into perspective. Our first gentleman hails from Rondebosch, went to a model-C school and proceeded to study a 3 year commerce degree at a private college. He went on to work for a small financial company that a family friend owns. He drives to work and his parents helped him pay the deposit on his car. He is able to save a third of his income for future years and in general, all is well. Just a short drive down the road, there is a young gentleman from Gugulethu who dropped out of school in Grade 9 and has been in and out of short-term jobs as a construction worker and security guard. He has to take unreliable public transport wherever he goes and uses almost his money to pay for his siblings’s food, school supplies and transport. Whilst these are both fictitous figures, it is also not far from the truth. We live in such a segregated society that we often don’t see the other side of how young people live. Many young people from poor socioeconomic backgrounds have to work harder and longer to try better their circumstances, whilst those more priveleged merely have to maintain a low, baseline level of effort to sustain what they already have.
In my experiences as a developing health professional, I often meet patients in their twenties and thrities who have simply been dealt a bad hand. They couldn’t finish school because they live without their parents, they can’t get jobs because they don’t have an education and they fall into ill health as a result of poor hygiene, an unhealthy diets, violence, substance abuse and overcrowding. And for some of them, there’s not much they can do to help themselves and no one else is actually trying to help them. When I meet people like this, I often think to myself: this could have been anyone. Some of the individuals I have met are so clearly aware, intelligent and switched on that it’s sad to think they were not afforded the same oppurtunities as myself. I see them wilt away from a disease of poverty that they probably wouldn’t have in the first place had they followed the life path many of us sitting here are so fortunate to have.
When thinking of it like this, it is not hard to understand why being young is a blessing for some and a curse for others. The country we live in is one of the most unequal societies in the world. Last time our income inequality was calculated, results showed a 63% Gini coefficient, ranking us as having the highest income ineqality in the world. A large proportion of our young people are living unsatisfactory lives as a result of these blaring inequalities.
In order to understand this better, we can look at recent demographic statistics. We have about 21 million people between the ages of 15 and 34, this making up about 35% of our population. In fact, Africa as whole has one of the highest proportion of young people in the world. We are the only continent with a continually increasing youth popoulation – all other continents have peaked their youth populations in former years. In the past decade, HIV rates have increased in people under the age 50 to almost 20%. We still maintain one of the highest teenage pregnancy rates in the world and our youth unemployment rates continue to rise. About 32% of young South Africans fall into the NEET category – Not in Employment, Education or Training. Just to delve into these figures a bit:
- 1 in 3 youth in the labour force are without jobs
- Specifically looking at the 15-24 age category (the one I belong to) – a whopping 55% are unemployed. Whilst some may argue that this is also the group with the highest percentage of enrolment in tertiary education institutions, a large majority of them aren’t and lay dormant, bored, without money and without a job.
Based purely on these facts, it seems that the majority of our youth are still suffering. In his recent State of Nation Address, President Cyril Ramaphosa stated that an additional 2 million jobs will be created for youth in the next decade. This didn’t impress me much. As mentioned earlier, our youth are an expanding population and by the time those 2 millions jobs have been filled, there will be a new 2 million and more looking for jobs. This illustrates the reason why more young people need to mobilize themselves toward working for change, rather than waiting for our countries’ elites to try and find solutions for us.
I cannot provide anyone with comprehensive solutions to solve our the problem, however, I can try point people in what I think is the right direction.
My personal take on activism is that one doesn’t necessarily need to be starting new organizations and rallying in the streets every week to be an activist. You don’t need to be preaching your beliefs to every onlooker, friend and family member. Engaging in an act as small as making sure you recycle your plastic items is a form of activism. Living healthily, exercising and eating food from sustainable sources is a form of activism. Paying people a living wage is a form of activism. Working an honest job and supporting the local economy is a form of activism. Paying your taxes is a form of activism. Why? Because activism itself is defined as one’s efforts to promote a better society. Is working honestly and paying generously promoting a better society? Maybe. Is reducing your carbon emissions by sharing lifts and planting a few trees promoting a better society? Definitely.
How can you, as a young person, be involved? In my opninion the key is small steps.
Small, collective efforts made by many will always have a better outcome than major moves made by few. These small steps are often simple and overlooked and most people wouldn’t even regard them as activism. When I speak of these small steps, I think of things along these lines.
- Commit to your own education and helping other learn.
- Watch the news for a few minutes every day and speak about what you have learnt with others.
- Donate your old school books and novels to charities.
- Volunteer in your own community, be it at the mosque, animal shelter or library.
- Develop your opinions and hold true to them – nothing is worse than being agreeable your whole life.
- Correct your friends and family when they are in the wrong.
- Work towards being an eco-muslim – recycle your papers and plastics, reuse your shopping bags, eat less meat and buy more sustainable produce.
- Support the small business owner. Buying a bag of avocados from a hawker will pay for their bus fare, but buying a pack of “Imported, Spanish, Ready to Eat” avos from Woolworths is once again donating to the capitalist ploys of big companies. You’ll probably save some money on the hawker’s avos at any rate.
- If you are able to, donate a pint of blood. You don’t know whose life you may be saving.
- Use social media positively and for the propogation of content pertaining to social issues, both locally and globally. Social media has been a vital tool in global struggles, for example the #PrayForSudan, #FeesMustFall and #BlackLivesMatter campaigns.
- Ask questions. You’ll never find the answers if you don’t ask in the first place.
- Also, be sure to examine your own interests and passions – explore them and the community around them and you will no doubt find a way in which you can support it for positive change.
In conclusion, I would just like to add that getting young people involved does not only involve the youth. The older generations need to be aware that we need a say in almost all levels of societal and political planning. We need to be given the space to participate and should be welcomed with open arms. Changes and progress made today will affect the youth of tommorow for the longest time. I leave you with a short quote that illustrates this idea perfectly.
“We cannot always build the future for our youth, but we can build our youth for the future.”