Tim Modise: Impatient Youth – Writing was on the wall, 1976 reflections

I wrote the below article for the Sowetan newspaper back in June around Youth Day but unfortunately it was not published. It was inspired by the conversations I had at the time with the youth and I could sense an impatience on their part. This was meant as a broad message to society, particularly government, to put black youth aspirations at the centre of their policies. The uprising by students now around fees, to my mind, speaks to the bigger challenges. The youth of today have found their voice, they are now setting the agenda on university fees and will no doubt set it on other matters in days to come. They are leading the acceleration of change that they demand. Their socio-economic marginalization is a threat to the stability and progress we all desire.

by Tim Modise

I spent Youth Day in Mpumalanga working with a group of dedicated young professionals. We had woken up in the spectacular Blyde Canyon Mountain Range, enjoyed the scenery, and quickly went to join another group of predominantly young South African professionals, who were providing health care from the Transnet Phelophepa train, to the destitute and sickly people of Acornhoek. Apparently the employees on the train do this all the time. They travel from one impoverished community to another, providing health care very cheaply or for free.

Students protest during a mass demonstration on the steps of Jameson Hall at the University of Cape Town, October 22, 2015. South Africa's President Jacob Zuma said on Thursday he will meet student leaders and university authorities on Friday to discuss planned hikes in tuition fees that have sparked a week of nationwide protests, some of which have turned violent. REUTERS/Mark Wessels
Students protest during a mass demonstration on the steps of Jameson Hall at the University of Cape Town, October 22, 2015. South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma said on Thursday he will meet student leaders and university authorities on Friday to discuss planned hikes in tuition fees that have sparked a week of nationwide protests, some of which have turned violent. REUTERS/Mark Wessels

As we went about our business during the day, we noted that it was June 16, and the day was being celebrated elsewhere in the country but there were no celebrations to be seen where we were. At one point, a young colleague joked and said I should note as an ‘elder’ member of our group that young South Africans were not as lazy as they were sometimes described. Another challenged me about the role of older South Africans in mentoring young people.

Later that day we had a full-scale discussion about the events of June 16 way back 39 years ago and the significance thereof in modern day South Africa. I was very privileged to be the lead narrator and memory bank of the history of the time. I recalled how the youth uprising was ignited in Soweto and quickly became a nationwide conflagration in schools, colleges and universities. The youth had had enough of oppression and a new consciousness was sweeping the country. I told them that a lot of people’s sense of self-esteem was radically changed at that time and there was no turning back for them. As we all know events from that period significantly gave impetus to the dawn of 1994.

Read also: DA says Zuma is failing the youth as country celebrates Youth Day

‘Well that is history now’ they persisted.’

‘What about the challenges of today?’

‘Where is the leadership and direction?’

‘We are 21 years into our freedom yet the majority of young people live on the margins.’

On reflection I think it is because of the bigger sense of purpose that many young people of the time had that spurred them into action. It happened because of the efforts of many young leaders, chief amongst them Steve Biko, who had promoted the idea of black consciousness. They had taught that the restoration of the dignity of the African in apartheid South Africa was the responsibility of the African herself. This was expressed through responsibility to self, respect to community, and solidarity with the oppressed at home and everywhere.

Our freedom today has given us participation in the democratic system. Freedom to participate in the economy is still very minimal. With all our problems the education system is still performing below par for the needs of our nation. This clearly manifests itself in the high number of young people being without jobs, not being employable, and not being able to create opportunities for themselves. The same applies in the case of social problems. Our freedom has given us some social benefits that have unintentionally in some instances have become disempowering entitlements. We have become a consumer-oriented society that is too dependent on either the state for welfare or the small white community for economic growth and employment.

Read also: In SA 1 in 4 still unemployed – youth crisis as 63.1% remain jobless

This freedom that we enjoy now, in this age of advanced technology, must galvanise us to find purpose as a people. With that purpose must come responsibilities. Our purpose should be to build a modern state that restores the human dignity in all manifestations. The self esteem of people through the development of intellect and of culture, the ability to create artistically, to discover new scientific frontiers, to become self reliant through entrepreneurship, to become morally responsible to ourselves and others by standing for justice and human rights for all. In other words, to realize our own social, cultural and economic needs in the context of our common citizenship and to participate in the advancement of all human civilization.

We have the instruments and we have the resources. Our leaders across the board must now turn these into capabilities. As the month of June draws to a close, I propose that the youth celebrations be more than the perfunctory duty they have become. Youth month should reflect on the road travelled and in a thorough manner focus on the institutions and programmes that advance their aspirations. The youth, after all are the majority in this nation, their issues should be removed from the margins to the mainstream of public life.