Celebrating June 16, 29 Years on
By Busani Ngcaweni and Lerato Ngoma
THERE ARE SOME contradictions in living life as a young person in South Africa today. If you are unemployed (Human Sciences Research Council estimates that two thirds of South Africans between the age of 18 and 35 are unemployed) the month of June creates spaces where you are able to remind those in power of the hardships involved in being poor, unskilled and unemployed. If you are economically active, depending on your level of consciousness, this date probably represents a day in which you can down your tools, enjoy the Comrades Marathon, go shopping or perhaps a day in which you can salute those who died in 1976 in order for us to be free and working today.
We know the historical events that gave birth to what we regard today as the June month and we know the challenges faced by youth in South Africa today. Our remembrance of the youth that died on June 16 as they took to the streets and rejected oppression is an act that is celebrated as part of our national heritage. So, since 1994, and increasingly in recent times, the month of June has become known and celebrated as “youth month”, with a focus on issues pertaining to youth development. This is evidenced by an apparent trend where there is a plethora of statements on the challenges that young people face. Typically, these include mass communication on high rates of unemployment, social disintegration, lack of skills and occupational experience amongst the youth.
During June month, our interaction with young people themselves increases and the discourse on youth development is more pervasive. There is media frenzy on youth issues and we see Government Ministers tackling specific challenges applicable to their portfolio around youth. This culminates in the holiday of June 16, at which event President Thabo Mbeki committed government to prioritising youth issues. Also in terms of a recent trend, after the speeches and declarations in nationwide celebrations, we then entertain young people with their favourite “Kwaito” stars. In some instances, the private sector organises activities that “demonstrate” their commitment to youth development.
While we are celebrating young people in our country and at the same time acknowledge their challenges, we need to reflect on the manner in which we are doing this. Do we give young people themselves reasons to celebrate June 16, or is our approach perpetuating a situation in which youth see this as a political event which contributes little or nothing to their development?
There is a sense that challenges facing young people are a responsibility of the state. This then allows individuals to abrogate any responsibility towards the creation of a better life for all. While the state has the primary responsibility to act as a catalyst for youth development, this is not to the exclusion of individuals and institutions outside government to play a role. To give meaning to slogans like “youth are our future”, the quest for youth development requires collective effort with the participation of all social partners i.e. individuals, families, communities, society, government and the private sector.
There has never been a questioning of the self – that is what we in our individual capacities are doing to contribute to the development of young South Africans. The lost lives we hear about, the stories of unwanted teenage pregnancies, early school attrition, unemployment, social and criminal vulnerability – all become soap operas that we boldly hear about in the days of our lives. They really become stories that we do not therefore participate in re-scripting and producing.
Purposefully, this piece has used words like the challenges facing young people, instead of describing young people as a “problem”, as it has been done by the proponents of the “lost generation” or “from young lions to young yawners”, as reported by the Mail and Guardian in January 2004. Such reference further marginalises youth and has huge implications in terms of how they view themselves and their role in society. The Human Sciences Research Council reported in 2004 that young people between the ages of 14 and 35 account for over forty percent of the population. It further argues that given the preponderance of numbers both in terms of population size and unemployment, youth cannot be relegated into an obscure sub-culture with nothing positive to contribute.
Various studies, albeit limited, on youth reveal a growing number of youth who are taking advantage of opportunities and making a positive contribution in society. This therefore exposes the emptiness of the “lost generation” / “young yawners” / assertions. Limiting young people’s interest to Kwaito and popular culture obscures their interest and capacity for engaging in disciplines such as science and technology, politics and economics.
We need to acknowledge that given opportunity and space young people are able to mitigate against the challenges that confront them. For example, with regard to unemployment and the current rates of HIV infection, a growing number of unemployed youth are volunteering in various projects aimed at assisting those infected and affected by HIV/AIDS, while at the same time gaining skills and occupational experience. The Departments of Health and Social Development estimate that South Africa has close to ten thousand volunteers providing home and community based care and that close to seventy percent of these are young men and women.
In Moses Kotane Municipality in North West, we saw over seven hundred young people taking part in the People’s Housing Process by building over two thousand housing units. This addressed both the challenge of access to sustainable housing for rural communities and skills development. This project received national recognition when it won the national housing award in 2004. Such a story illustrates youth’s ability to form cycles of support to tackle matters that concern them and their communities.
The tertiary education sector has experienced unprecedented demand from black youth in general and females in particular. The boom in private training institutions is largely driven by the inability of public institutions to meet the demand and other issues of access. More importantly, all these demonstrate the hunger of youth to gain skills necessary to access the labour market. The deal flow in financial institutions and those providing business development support to small and medium sized enterprises has increased with many youths identifying opting for self-employment in a hugely competitive formal labour market. For example, such growth in deal flow has been experienced by a Cape Town based Open for Business and many other organisations in the country that have altered traditional practices which regarded youth as a “risky” clientele.
So what is our individual and collective contribution as young professionals in advancing the cause of youth development in this June month and beyond? Should we celebrate that we are amongst the few that have accessed opportunities to acquire skills and earn livelihoods? Should we celebrate that we have access to the media, telecommunications and buying power while many of our peers and contemporaries struggle to make ends meet? Or should we be modest or politically correct and shout slogans with those that are classified as unemployable because they lack access to information, general education, skills, business development support, finance to start businesses and occupational experience or those who cannot be engaged by the labour market because of skills miss-match phenomenon?
Clearly this relies on each individual and his / her level of consciousness.
Our thesis is that youth underdevelopment is a national crisis and therefore requires national attention and collective efforts. If the recent report by the National Intelligence Agency that the biggest threat to our country’s security is youth joblessness is anything to go by, then no one can rest until sustainable livelihoods for youth are created. In fact, for us national security should not ignite a wave of concern regarding this matter. What South Africa needs is “moral consensus” on the urgency to create opportunities for youth.
This “moral consensus” is necessary to push back the frontiers of poverty. It is necessary to motivate all of us to multiply our efforts to create opportunities for youth to access skills, gain occupational experience, access business finance and business development support services.
By giving young people an opportunity to acquire skills, occupational competencies and support to start small business – over and above current benefits of participating in political processes and other aspects of social life without fear of retribution from a repressive regime – we will give youth more reasons to celebrate June 16 29 years on. Given high levels of unemployment which breeds poverty, it would be unreasonable of us who have secure livelihoods to expect our peers to celebrate this youth month if their socio economic conditions have not improved. On the contrary, we will have to worry about a security threat that NIA warns us against. Unlike in 1976 when circumstances surrounding a security threat that culminated in a popular uprising by students were untenable, we in 2005 have sufficient policy instruments and resources to turn this apparent threat into an opportunity to invest in our future – the youth. Return on this investment will stimulate more June 16 celebrations and sharpen contradictions around reasons to participate in such celebrations.