Now and then

by Morongoa Selepe


In South Africa, June is Youth Month, and 16 June is Youth Day. Many different groups around the country celebrate Youth Day. Churches, political organisations, NGOs etc., will host various activities to commemorate this important day in our South African history. Others will mark the day wearing school uniforms, but this has become unpopular in recent years. So, what makes the day important in our country? In 1976, school children in Soweto took to the streets on 16 June in protest against being taught in Afrikaans. These protests and demonstrations are known as the Soweto Uprisings.


More than 40 years later, the landscape concerning youth in South Africa is different. Students today do not have to endure the hardship of being taught only in Afrikaans. The South African Department of Basic Education allows learners to be taught in their home languages, all 11 of our official languages. Education access has improved, but more work still needs to be done in rural areas. The South Africa School Act of 1996 makes schooling compulsory from age 7 to 15 or the completion of Grade 9. This is an improvement.


Like the youth of 1976, the youth today have their struggles. Then, the apparent challenge for youth was the Apartheid system. Now, they battle mental health issues, challenges around identity and acceptance, family expectations that are sometimes unrealistic, and substance abuse coupled with the struggle for rehabilitation and staying clean. The biggest challenge we as young people face is that despite working and trying hard, we cannot reach our dreams and ambitions. After listening to advice from everyone around us about how important education is and that it is the key to success, we find ourselves stuck at home, qualified but without a job.  The consequence is often the use of toxic substances and developing behaviours that are more damaging to our future in the long run.


The most significant difference between youth then and now is action. The youth of 1976 acted. They took to the streets to protest against a system that had set out to destroy them. The action they took was dangerous. Standing up to a government that despised them would never be easy; they risked their lives, and many died.


Nevertheless, they had suffered long enough and were prepared to do anything to fight for a better life, which they did. Many lessons can be drawn from the action of the youth then. Organising a protest without social media and cellular phones speaks of unity. The youth were united in their fight, something youth today can say very little of.


And so, while we complain, usually in the comfort of social media with a hidden identity, making videos to keep up with hashtags and trends, we must remember the youth of 1976 acted. We might go down in history as the youth who tweeted or posted statuses. Are we okay with this?


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