Around the world, Youth Day is a celebration, a joyful and hopeful reminder that children must be treasured, for they really are our future.
In South Africa, Youth Day, 16 June, has a rather more serious significance. Because, on that day in 1976, black students in Soweto, Johannesburg, took to the streets in a march to protest against their education system, which was far inferior to that at schools for white youngsters. Their teachers were inadequately trained, their classrooms overcrowded, their curriculum prepared them only for menial tasks, and their lessons were given not in their home languages, but in English and Afrikaans.
The march involved more than 20,000 pupils from Soweto. In later clashes with the police and the violence that followed, approximately 700 people, many of them youths, were killed. Thirteen-year-old Hector Pieterson was shot dead; an image captured by photographer Sam Nzima of Hector’s body being carried by a friend became a symbol for the uprising. Youth Day commemorates that sobering occasion.
What Youth Day means today
That 44-year-old event will always be remembered. Many modern South Africans welcome the day as a chance to spend time with their families, and to celebrate family values. Sporting extravaganzas were held to raise funds for children in need – fun events focused on helping youth.
In communities whose conditions have not improved, the focus of Youth Day has changed. Instead of honouring the past, the day highlights the problems faced by today’s youth, many of whom live in tough conditions and have little education to face the future.
For Brian Qamata, a young entrepreneur who is getting the young people of Khayelitsha to play chess instead of hanging around the streets, contributing to the lives of the young people in his community is vital. In an interview with the - Mail & Guardian - he said: ‘You get kids who have never been outside the townships in their 15 years and they begin idolising the reality around them, like crime and drugs. There’s a lack of mentorship for youth today.’
Brian is one of a network of people working to help empower South Africa’s youth through a group called Activate Change Drivers*, which connects young people who have the skills and confidence to help reshape our society. Activate member Kay-Dee Dineo Mashile left her job to help empower women by teaching them to read. ‘Youth cannot wait around for the government to give them aid,’ she says, ‘they need to empower themselves.’
Youth Day encapsulates the very real issue of preparing our young people to play a meaningful role in society. Let’s focus more on the positive stuff, on what is happening now, and what the youth are doing now to improve the future for themselves and other young people.
*Activate Change Drivers is one of many organisations that work to inspire and empower South Africa’s youth. An online search will bring up many similar initiatives.
Today I can go to a multicultural university
Youth Day is also a day of celebration. For those young people who have been able to take advantage of the changes, life is looking up.
‘Today I can go to a multicultural university,’ said one student from Walter Sisulu University in the Eastern Cape. ‘We can actually be free and express ourselves as young South Africans.’
Nelson Mandela’s words to young South Africans are perhaps the best inspiration for Youth Day:
‘Sometimes it falls upon a generation to be great. You can be that great generation. Let your greatness blossom.’
– Nelson Mandela, 1975
Mail & Guardian. Young people want Youth Day to focus on today’s issues. 2019, 16 June. https://mg.co.za/article/2019-06-14-young-people-want-youth-day-to-focus-on-todays-issues
South African History Online: The June 16 Soweto Youth Uprising https://sahistory.org.za