June 16, signalled a decisive epoch in struggle history and captured the unique role played by our youth in the struggle for national liberation and re-building of a new South Africa. It is now an accepted ritual that every year on June 16, various social forces or groupings pay tribute to the class of 1976, either by visiting the iconic graveyard of Hector Peterson in Soweto, to bemoan the current state of the youth or by holding commemorative events, to reminisce and recount the tragic events of June 16, 1976.
What has not been repeatedly told is the fact that those who are scholars of history or engaged in research work, have consistently argued that the Soweto Students’ Uprising of June 16, owes it roots or origins to the 1973 Durban Strike. By highlighting this, one is not trying to misappropriate history, but merely discerning and rummaging through the historical facts in order to connect the dots. One of the principal leaders of the Durban Strike was celebrated trade unionist and Communist martyr Johannes Nkosi. This heroic strike mainly by black African workers led to the re-birth of progressive, radical and militant trade union activism in South Africa, which in turn influenced the heroic youth of 1976. The bravery of the youth of 1976, led to the swelling of the ranks of the liberation movements in exile, bringing fresh vigour and adding extra tempo to our historical struggle for national liberation and people’s power.
It is not a coincidence of history that the student-worker axis in the early ‘80’s rejuvenated progressive politics and brought a breath of fresh air, which led to the formation of worker’s trade union centre, Cosatu, and the United Democratic Front (UDF). It was through this organic axis and power from below, that our struggle was renewed and the world paid attention to the struggle being waged by the people of South Africa for a new order. The images of the then jailed leader Nelson Mandela and decorated symbols of black, green and gold of the ANC, where increasingly profiled and those involved in activism associated themselves openly with the liberation movement, as led by the ANC. This worker-student axis was a vital cog in rendering SA ‘ungovernable’ as a response to a call made by the then exiled leader of the ANC, President Oliver Tambo.
As a fight back strategy and because of the unwillingness by PW Botha’s regime to relinquish power to the majority, a State of Emergency, was declared. A significant number of activists were detained without trial; police brutality escalated; others disappeared without being tracked by their families; others were killed and buried in unmarked graves. But the resilience and steadfastness of the youth brought hope to the oppressed people of South Africa.
It is not surprising that the heroic victory of MPLA/MK joint forces against the then Apartheid SA Defense Force, at the Battle of Cuito Cuanavale, marked a watershed moment, which heightened the revolutionary seizure of power by the ANC in 1994. Not de-linked from this historical fact, the dastardly assassination of Chris Hani, forced the regime to concede defeat, even though his tragic killing was meant to plunge the country into a civil war. From Boipatong (Sedibeng) to eMbumbulu (South of Durban), the youth was armed and ready to avenge Hani’s death. He occupied a special place of pride, commanded respect and was an exemplary figure amongst the vast majority of the working class and poor youth.
The fighting youth of our country still has some deep scars and unhealed wounds, since it was at the receiving end of political violence that marred our country in the late 1990’s, during the negotiation period, towards the transition to a new and democratic South Africa. A number of youth activists and promising jewels for a new order lost their lives in violent skirmishes between pro-ANC/IFP and anti-ANC/IFP groupings, notably in Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal. At some point, certain areas were regarded as “no-go” areas due to bloodied political rivalry that existed at the time between the ANC and IFP.
Since the advent of our negotiated political settlement of 1994, the nascent democratic state, as led by the African National Congress (ANC), declared June 16 to be a paid-public holiday, in honour and remembrance of those who perished on the day, and subsequently to recognise different generations of youth who have left an indelible mark in history books and played an heroic role in the struggle for a new South Africa.
Of particular significance, since 1994, there has been a growing layer of youth drawn from sections of a rapidly upwardly mobile black middle class and an emerging section of the black capitalist class. Unlike the 1976 youth, that was united to fight the oppressive and old system of Apartheid, the new democratic conditions, have brought various aspirations and interests for the youth of today. These aspirations and interests find expression in social and economic standing; those youth from a middle class or capitalist background have greater opportunities, such as a better life; access to quality education, health and they are easily absorbed in the job market, whereas, the youth from a working class and poor background are confronted by harsh realities, as a result of inferior education; a collapsing public health-care system; poverty and underdevelopment.
In South Africa today, 48% of the youth between the ages of 15-34, are unemployed, amidst the persisting challenges of racialised poverty, deepening inequality and an escalating unemployment rate. What is more concerning, since the economic meltdown or financial crisis of 2008 up to 2015; the number of youth that are too discouraged to search for employment has increased by a staggering 8%. Accompanying this ugly reality is an economy that is shedding massive jobs in the mining and manufacturing sectors. Equally, those lucky to be employed, are seized with the socio-economic burden having a responsibility to feed and take care of the large army that is ravaged by hunger and poverty, mainly in working class and poor households.
Even though significant advances have been made by our democratic state to improve the lives of young people and accord them a better future, our stubborn economy’s inability to create much needed jobs for the youth continues to be a big challenge. It is within this context that the youth of today, must heed our icon President Nelson Mandela’s words when he said “to the youth of today, I have a wish to make: Be the script writers of your destiny and feature yourselves as stars that showed the way towards a brighter future”. This calls on the youth of today not only to be “script writers of their destiny”, but they must also be engaged in struggles for the attainment of the goals of the Freedom Charter, as a “way towards a brighter future”.
It is an undeniable fact that the future of our country’s youth lies in the implementation of the Freedom Charter by our democratic state. As dictated in the Freedom Charter, the breaking down of monopoly industries in strategic sectors in order to allow greater participation and ownership by the black majority; provision of free higher education; and redistribution of land, can significantly lead towards creation of decent jobs and an end to economic exclusion and marginalisation of the youth. This requires the youth to organise itself, as a critical and leading voice in society, and forcefully push for a policy shift and introduction of progressive reforms that advance the key demands of the Freedom Charter.
As one astute thinker and revolutionary figure Frantz Fanon once wrote; “Each generation must, out of relative obscurity, discover its mission, fulfil it, or betray it”. Just like the generation of 1976 which had rightfully “discovered its mission”, and fought gallantly against a system that was declared a crime against humanity – Apartheid, the current generation has a revolutionary obligation and duty to “discover its mission, fulfil it, or betray it”. History is on the side of the youth!
• Lebogang Maile is the MEC of Economic Development, Agriculture, Environment and Rural Development (Gauteng); ANC Provincial Executive Committee (PEC) member in Gauteng. He writes in his personal capacity.