Student uprisings 16 June 1976 (GoodThingsGuy, 2019)
Youth Day: A Day of Celebration?
What we ought to be commemorating on any given South African Public Holiday is, unsurprisingly, a contentious subject. Many of the events in our recent history represent radically different things to different members of our society. A single event may symbolise a victory, a loss, a compromise or a half-forgotten section in a history textbook depending on who you talk to. As Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche puts it, there is no “single story” in any of our history; just muddy water from which we must fish the foundations of a nation. As a newly baptized democracy, we are on the journey of discovering what it means to build an honest, yet united, history.
This context of ambivalence, however, is one that I find infinitely exciting. The lack of a single historical perspective means that all of us, alive today, have the unique opportunity and responsibility of deciding what these historic days mean to us. We have the duty of moulding a national identity from the debris that apartheid and slavery left in their wake; of ensuring that no sacrifice or story is lost to the waves of time.
How do we perceive young people?
To me, Youth Day, the 16th of June, is a day of bittersweet juxtaposition. It represents acts of atrocity on the part of Apartheid policemen, who murdered over 500 young protestors and yet it also symbolises the inherent power of the younger generation. To me, this day represents hope, growth and the necessity of activism.
A common perception of youth (although it is one that is changing) is that we are naive, impatient and lack capability and experience. In many schools, we are given vague instructions on how to be a good person, punished for disobedience and told that this is preparation for the “real world”, which of course, we are not yet living in.
This outdated perception has been disproved countless times throughout history and continues to be disproved today.
San Francisco climate protests (Max Buenviaje-Boyde, 2019)
Youth at the forefront of social change
On 16 June 1976, over 20 000 students marched from Naledi township to protest the onset of the Bantu Education and Language Decree. This decree ensured the inadequate education of black students and was a method that the Apartheid government aimed to use to strengthen white superiority. Students including Hector Peterson and Hastings Ndlovu gave their lives for the idea that black children, such as myself, deserved equal education and opportunity. The Soweto uprising demonstrated just how powerful collective action on the part of the youth can be. The infamous picture of Hector Peterson made it impossible for the global community to ignore Apartheid’s brutality. Riots and disruption spread across the country in response to the uprising, the resistance movement gained momentum and the measure to enforce Afrikaans as a language of instruction was scrapped.
Young people continue to catalyse change in 2021. In the realm of climate activism, Greta Thunberg, Vannessa Nakate and countless other young climate activists have encouraged action that addresses the current climate crisis. David Hogg, Emma González and their peers were founders of the #NeverAgain movement that advocates for causes like stricter gun regulation in the United States. Amanda Nomnqa, a young South African activist from Ivory Park, not only started a women empowerment NPO but represented South Africa at the 74th United Nations’ General Assembly strategic meetings. I believe that the position that young people, such as those in the Soweto Uprising, have had at the forefront of social change can teach us all important lessons about activism itself.
Gender-based violence protests 2019
The ethos of young activism
The first is that the so-called idealism and naivety that the youth are often accused of are in fact powerful tools. Through my own involvement in activism, I’ve noticed that people at the pinnacle of current power systems often act as if they are shackled by invisible laws of the universe. There are unspoken beliefs that certain things simply cannot be challenged: capitalism cannot adapt; green energy initiatives will not work; and the prevention of backlash must be prioritized over the creation of racial, sexual and gender equality. It is unsurprising that many of those in power espouse these views. They are often beneficiaries of the status quo and change is a radical notion, one that humans instinctively reject. I believe that the first step to creating a more equitable community, country or world, however, is having the courage to imagine what that world looks like.
Within our social movements, young people have historically shown that the “idealism of youth” can catalyse progression. In the #NeverAgain movement, young people imagine a United States where the right to bear arms, a right many Americans see as fundamental, is legislated to protect those who are vulnerable. This world may seem like a liberal utopia; one that doesn’t take into account pragmatic politics and dominant sentiments. However, through their actions, these young people have made important steps towards reaching this goal.
They have pressured Governor Rick Scott into signing a bill that directly addresses several of their concerns. Companies all over the United States have cut their ties with the National Rifle Association and in 2021 the White House placed a ban on the bump stock, a device that enables semi-automatic weapons to fire like an automatic. I don’t think that the idealism of youth is something we should grow out of but rather something that we should balance with the concerns of pragmatism. Systems often seem insurmountable when they have sat rigidly in place for decades, but young people have shown us repeatedly that this simply isn’t true. Change may be a radical notion, but it is not an impossibility.
Secondly, in many cases, youth movements have demonstrated that rapid progress is not only possible but necessary. I’m almost certain that I’m not the only young person involved in social justice who has been called “impatient” by authority figures. Many young activists share the view that sometimes the harms of the status quo require swift and decisive action. Moreover, this decisive action need not comprise the sustainability and equitability of policies that are implemented. In the realm of climate change, countless young activists have gained attention for demanding immediate climate action from their governments. The global ecological breakdown is happening almost faster than we can stop it and the threats posed by food insecurity, water scarcity and droughts need immediate changes in environmental attitudes and wider political systems. Through the rhetoric of activist like Greta Thunberg, the world is finally starting to wake up to this fact. I believe that the urgency that often characterises youth movements is what makes them so effective.
Young womxn march to Parliament protesting gender-based violence (Neill Kropman, 2019)
What will you commemorate?
This Youth Day, I’m choosing to reflect on the bravery and strength of those 20 000 students and all the other people that they spurred into action. I’m choosing to commemorate the global history of youth participation and be inspired by how young people continue to change our world for the better. Not only have young people catalysed social progression but we’ve used our youth to our advantage and prioritised radical acts of imagination and the urgency of important points of progress. To me, Youth Day is a reminder that I too can create such change. The spirit and bravery that young people have shown and continue to show is something that ought to be celebrated. Happy Youth Day!
About the author: Semane
Semane is an incoming freshman at Harvard University in Boston, Massachusetts where she hopes to major in Economics. She recently graduated from Herschel Girls School where she was involved in student leadership, social justice and debating. Her previous research projects have investigated the harms of populism and how capitalism intersects with the liberation of womxn and the queer community. Semane hopes to conduct further research in the fields of Developmental and Cognitive Economics as well as utilise her South African heritage to bring new insights to these fields.