June has been marked as youth month in South Africa, with a specific focus on 16 June, which is also known as Youth Day. The day is about paying tribute to the school pupils who lost their lives during the 16 June 1976 uprising in Soweto.
This year marks the 41st anniversary of the Soweto uprising. In a bid to change the education system of that time, the young people of 1976 bravely took to the streets and participated in a peaceful march against the use of Afrikaans as the medium of instruction at schools.
These young people did not underestimate the kind of power they had to fight against unfairness, inequality and discrimination in the education system of the apartheid government. They rightfully claimed the future and paved the way for generations to come. They were able to define and defeat their enemy. Today, the fruit of their sacrifice is evident in our democracy, but the struggle is far from over.
According to the speeches by government leaders and politicians, the youth of today benefitted from the struggle against apartheid and have vast opportunities. But have they benefitted really? Today’s youth are still crippled by challenges.
They no longer have to physically fight against an oppressive government, but they still face the challenges of poverty, unemployment, substance abuse, teenage pregnancy, HIV, violence, crime and socio-economic inequalities.
African Monitor (AM) recently held Citizens Hearings (Community Dialogues) in seven African countries. In the dialogues, youth identified unemployment as the biggest thief of hope amongst young people.
In one of the community dialogues held in Konza village, Kenya, one participant talked about how despondent he was in the government’s education system. He said even after completing his higher education, he still could not secure a decent job. He found himself working with people who are primary school dropouts, and therefore did not see how education was of any use to him.
“I am currently working as a casual at the railway lines… pruning weed from the rails. My workmates are primary school drop outs. I don’t see how my education qualifications can enhance my competitive edge over others,” he said.
Similar frustration was shared in a community dialogue held in Johannesburg where Lebohang Mothibi, representing the youth, highlighted that most of the young people in his area dropped out of school which led them to being involved in drugs and substance abuse. “There is no access to information about studies and financial assistance in the rural areas. Therefore the youth do not know the importance of education and that they can get financial assistance from government,” said Mothibi.
As former United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon once said, young people around the world must “raise their voices” so they are heard loud and clear.
Are young people being given a chance to occupy some of the highest positions in the public service?
The 1996 Constitution of the Republic of South Africa empowers youth to practise their right of suffrage by stipulating the voting age bracket of eighteen (18) years and above. But the reality on the ground is that, despite playing active roles in democratic processes such as voting and campaigning, the youth are rarely found in leadership positions in government.
According to a list compiled in 2016, the 21 oldest African Presidents are aged between 70 and 92.
How are the challenges facing young people going to be tackled if they are not properly represented and participating in decision-making?
Young people need to take their position and bring more innovative solutions to address their plight.
The truth is that youth feel empowered when they are entrusted with tasks or if they are made to participate in projects that will help enhance different life skills like decision-making, leadership, and others. Similarly, if the youth are engaged in programmes that are of interest to them in their local communities, youth capacity building can be achieved.
The good news is, several civil society organisations like African Monitor are working towards establishing programmes that are aimed for the betterment of the youth. AM has the Voice Africa’s Future initiative, where it works with Youth Champions in a bid to empower the African youth.
In Africa, it is not enough for youth to wait for their governments to create opportunities for them. When the legislation provides for the participation and empowerment of citizens, then youth should be able and willing to demand the right to participate in politics, in the economy and in society at large. Young people will become a force to be reckoned with when they are organised and well-coordinated to influence government processes.