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Youth Day is just as much for the present as it is for the past

Updated: Nov 28, 2023

Connor Bam 17 Jun 2020

The Soweto riots of 1976 were part of a well-orchestrated reaction to apartheid.

Approximately 700 people – many under the age of 18 ̶ were killed during the Soweto Uprising in 1976. It is the memory and sacrifices of these brave young men and women that we commemorate and honour on Youth Day, June 16, and throughout Youth Month, every year.

Many of us could be forgiven for not thinking about national commemoration days as we try to deal with the challenges foisted on us by the Covid-19 pandemic. Given that we’ve been in lockdown for quite some time, many of us have lost track of what day of the week it is, let alone public holidays.

But we should not let June 16 pass by unnoticed because doing so would dishonour the memory of more than 20 000 pupils who marched against the decree that Afrikaans would be a compulsory language of instruction by the Bantu Education Department in 1974. The march, however, was representative of much greater dissatisfaction. Dissatisfaction at a system that segregated and suppressed young black people.

The spirit of Youth Day, however, should not be confined to its historical roots. Whereas it is important to respect and acknowledge the sacrifices made by the youth during apartheid, we should also appreciate that through their actions, the current youth of South Africa were given a voice, one that will not be silenced, no matter the cost.

Youth Month, therefore, should also be used to acknowledge contemporary examples of this shining spirit of defiance in the face of injustice.

In this regard, I would like to mention two examples: the #feesmustfall movement that started in 2015 and swept across university campuses and the more recent anti gender-based violence movement that was triggered by the horrific death of 19-year-old University of Cape Town student Uyinene Mrwetyana. Both are reflective of the spirit of defiance exemplified by the 1976 Soweto marchers. Although the events cannot be equated, they relate to each other as moments in South Africa’s history where the youth have fought for equality and human rights.

The nationwide Fees Must Fall protests and the mass mobilisation to come to the defence of the financially vulnerable and the fight to keep sites of tertiary education inclusive in the face of a harsh police response, is reminiscent of the day the youth took to the streets in 1976.

Although the protests to end gender-based violence that followed the death of Mrwetyana were not exclusive to South African youth, the movement most certainly found its voice among them. The protest that attracted tens of thousands of people outside Parliament in Cape Town on September 5 2019 could be seen as originating from the angry cries of young South Africans, too many of whom could picture themselves in Mrwetyana’s shoes.

It was not enough to catch one killer when there was still a pervasive culture of violence against women, contibuting to the country’s shocking rates of femicide, that needed to be addressed. It fell, once again, to the youth to call out a system that does not protect its citizens.

This Youth Month, I ask you to remember those young individuals ̶ past and present ̶ who have given their lives so that we might see a free and inclusive South Africa. The best way to respect those who fought so hard against an unjust system in 1976, is to acknowledge and validate the struggles for equality being waged by today’s young men and women.

We see ourselves in the youth of the past, and hope to match the precedent they have set. Youth Month should be a month of introspection, where we respect the sacrifices that have been made and acknowledge the ever-continuing struggle for equality in our beautiful country.

First published on M&G website


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