Youth activists continue to act as our conscience while we ignore the issues causing their frustration

Youth activists continue to act as our conscience while we ignore the issues causing their frustration


Forty-five years ago the world was a different place. South Africa was a very different place. Today, the world is just a click away and every wart, almost anywhere, is instantly noticeable.

Try as we might, it is impossible to wish away, ignore, hide or otherwise deal with those harshly visible warts, which we know all too well are there, festering.

Similarly, it is disquieting that during the past few decades, we have witnessed the promise of democracy being steadily eroded. The dream of freedom inspired by the legendary Biko, Hani, Mandela, Sobukwe, Tambo, and other revered historic figures, has been surreptitiously deferred.

Successive political leadership has passed on the massive burdens to future generations, of tackling the fundamental questions of power and ownership in all their complex, insidious socio-economic forms in our fragile country.

Meanwhile, SA is teetering on the verge of complete bankruptcy, largely caused by incompetence and lack of caring by self-serving leaders. They are hellbent on benefiting from public resources, without any visible consequences for their treasonous and criminal conduct.

The “Them and Us” divide has been starkly evident over the last sixteen months, as the devastation of the Covid-19 pandemic continues to wreak havoc on most of us. Yet the corrupt few continue to benefit obscenely at the expense of the rest of us.

Let us not forget the historic significance of June 16, 1976, and Biko, Mashinini, Mazibuko, Morobe, Mthembu, Ndabeni, Tiro, Tyawa, and the 1970s young leadership – who Mandela described as the “spark that lit a veld fire across South Africa.”

They sacrificed their youth – and many their lives – for the democracy we now have, such as it is.

Today, we should be celebrating and paying homage to the thousands of children, who took on the military might of the feared apartheid state with their bare hands – armed only with their principles and dreams of a better future.

Despite these herculean odds, a certain Zuma, writing in the ANC’s Sechaba (July 1976), accused the Soweto student leaders of adventurism. He was surprisingly ignorant or dismissive of the growing resistance from the early 1970s – primarily of students and youth – to white minority rule and the widespread opposition to the imposition of Afrikaans as the medium of instruction in schools.

Tambo, in 1986, correctly paid tribute to “this truly historic occasion, when the nation will pay fitting tribute to the young heroes and martyrs, including eight-year-olds, who fell in that titanic battle against the forces of apartheid repression.”

The ANC increased its membership exponentially in the aftermath of the singular events of June 16, 1976, thrusting it into the forefront of the liberation Struggle. The ungraciousness of it all, taking for granted the tremendous youth sacrifice; impertinently asking youth to continue to sacrifice so that the few may benefit.

Enjoying almost untrammelled political power since the dawn of democracy, the ANC government was forced to recognise June 16, after South Africans in their numbers –simply commemorated this important date in our history in 1994. True to South African legislative speak it was, albeit begrudgingly, called Youth Day.

For more than half a century, SA has witnessed wave after wave of youth activists acting as our conscience, confronting us with critical issues of public concern that have focussed our attention on what is gravely disturbing.

From the rise of Steve Biko’s SA Students’ Organisation (SASO in 1969), through the SA Students’ Movement (SASM, which led the Soweto June 16 uprising), to the Congress of SA Students, and the Rhodes and #FeesMustFall periods, our youth has been outspoken and led the call to decisive action.

It is thus sad that some have, once in public office, become complacent, compliant and defensive of state power. This privileged group has, in many instances, become the salaried beneficiaries, who tend to quickly deny the terrible realities confronting a nation at war with itself – which is rapidly declining in nearly all sectors.

Human beings are known to fiercely defend and protect their offspring, nurturing and preparing them for the cruelties that they may face out there. SA is probably unique, in that our youth are now only recognised in the negative – when they protest, burn and destroy. In such instances, we quickly blame them for how they respond, forgetting the issues that gave rise to their frustration and anger in the first place.

We conveniently overlook how we have perennially ignored the warning signs, and carry on as if all is well, when it patently is not!

Unemployment is at a staggering 42.3%. Youth unemployment is at a dangerously high 74.7%. The sheer enormity of this youth hopelessness has to be concerning to parents, grandparents and siblings – the overwhelming majority of us. Whatever we cherish and own, or think we own, is tenuous. The castle on the hill that I occupy is worth nothing when surrounded by shacks – oozing poverty and degradation.

Adult wealth at the expense of our children, is unnatural. It will decay. The walls of our indifference can never assure security. It ought to prick our sensibilities that we are fine, when all around us we fail to see the starvation and daily struggle for survival.

Many ex-political prisoners, who were active in the mid-1970s and fuelled the thrust to democratic settlement in 1994, live in penury, with those who have directly benefited doing their utmost to consign them to pauper graves.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), chaired by Nobel Laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu, stated in 1998 that: “Apartheid could only have happened if large numbers of enfranchised, relatively privileged South Africans either condoned or simply allowed it to continue.”

We have now reached the situation where we allow outrages to persist, deny the objective reality facing the majority of our citizens, and expect our future – our young – not to dream of a better world where they may participate on equal terms, instead of the dystopia they experience now.

We can help ourselves, our country, and our world, when we “look at life with the eyes of a child” as the artist Matisse captured in his Expressionism. Thus will we ensure Matisse’s “balance of purity and serenity devoid of troubling or depressing subject matter” which will haunt us until we, as was said in the TRC, “examine with honesty and with humility the role we have played in the past and, more importantly, what role we can – as individuals and as institutions – play in the future”.

Five of these leaders will share their experience – of the planning meeting of June 13, 1976 – at 4pm on Sunday, June 13, at

* Cooper is a former political prisoner, who was jailed with Nelson Mandela on Robben Island. Cooper was a member of the 1970s group of activists. He is now president of the Pan-African Psychology Union.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL and Independent Media.

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