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#Youth Day: ‘Nothing for us without us’

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Picture: Henk Kruger/African News Agency (ANA)/Taken October 2016 – Students march at UCT in Cape Town. The #FeesMustFall protest movement – which began mid-October 2015 when students nationwide began organising and taking to the streets to demand free decolonised higher education – was the most excellent student-led demonstration since the historic 1976 Soweto uprising, the writer says.

By Vusumzi Qqalane

South Africa commemorates the sacrifices made by the class of 1976 in their fight against the apartheid system. However, 47 years later, many young black people are still faced with challenges such as unemployment, poverty, gender-based violence (GBV), and an exclusionary, racist, and sexist higher education system. As a result, for the past 27 years since the attainment of democracy, black youth have been left behind by the ruling ANC party. The South African government has demonstrated a lack of adequate and impactful public policy implementation to address issues confronting young black people. Unemployment, GBV, poverty, and an unequal higher education system remain a ticking bomb for South Africa.

Unemployment crises amongst youth

After the release of the most recent data for the first quarter of 2023, according to Statistics SA, the youth unemployment rate has increased by 1.1 percent to 46.5 percent in the first quarter of 2023, indicating that 4.9 million young people in South Africa have little to no hope for the future. However, we are told every year that our government has dedicated itself to creating job opportunities for youth.

A new youth policy was introduced in 2015 by former president Jacob Zuma, who promised to prioritise youth development initiatives across all government departments. However, there needed to be more effect from the national youth policy. The year 2020 saw the launch of President Cyril Ramaphosa’s Youth Employment Services (YES) project, which had the ambitious target of reducing youth unemployment by one million through creating job opportunities, and not even half of that has been achieved.

Instead, the public and private sectors still require three years of work experience, which prevents many young people from finding employment and subjects them to 12-month internships with no promise of permanent jobs. This has resulted in a disgruntled, stressed, and hopeless young generation with a job today but nothing tomorrow. Young people live in an era where poverty and unemployment have been “normalised” in South Africa.

Poignantly, youth dissatisfaction has been exacerbated by inadequate socioeconomic services and a lack of opportunities. Because of this, young people have become disenchanted with political processes and are further disengaged from electoral politics. As such, I argue that young people are slowly threatening South Africa’s democratic legitimacy and stability.

Gender-based violence and LGBTIQA+ community

Gender-based violence is a pervasive issue in South Africa and has become our biggest nightmare, and we have one of the highest rates of domestic violence in the world; Statistics SA findings demonstrate that rape and sexual assault cases are a permanent trend in our communities. GBV has adversely impacted young women and non-binary minority groups in institutions of higher learning, and as a result, universities are no longer regarded as secure environments.

Many South African universities were hit by protests in 2016 concerned about sexual assault on campuses, bringing to light how GBV is firmly established in institutions of higher learning. That is again proof that we are a generation fighting for survival, and unfortunately, GBV has become a norm in South Africa.

We also celebrate Pride Month in June to commemorate the 1969 Stonewall Riot and to honour the LGBTQI+ community. However, under the current status quo, students and youth who identify with the LGBTQI+ community continue to face harassment and discrimination as a result of their sexuality. This is driven by prejudice that is deeply rooted in nonsensical societal assumptions about gender roles, masculinity and femininity, particularly in South African universities.

As said before, we are a suffering and broken generation. Undeniably, people identifying with the LGBTQI+ community encounter various forms of discrimination daily in institutions of higher learning; this creates a persistent fear of “coming out” owing to systematic challenges. For example, the LGBTQI+ community faces challenges such as, but not limited to, the language used in university institutional policies and documents, infrastructure such as toilets, residential spaces that are not inclusive to the transgender community and LGBTQI+ community, labelling as isitabane, as a reference to homosexuals and homophobic behaviour on campus.

The difficulties have a severe impact not only on academic performance but also on emotional health. Universities should be at the forefront of fostering and advocating for inclusive and non-sexist environments within institutions, and in doing so, universities should be deliberate in making an impact here.

Siyanda Maganya from the Gender Equality and Anti-discrimination office in the Unit for Institutional Change and Social Justice in an opinion piece titled: “Gender-neutral language and titles can help create a more equitable playing field” says that “the long-standing tradition of using terminologies that only recognise the gender binary ought to be denounced, as it is discriminatory and exclusionary towards students who do not identify as either male or female for participation in leadership roles”.

“For the sake of this piece, I would use those words not only in the context of leadership roles but also in the language used to address students and employees in university policies, documents, and other forms of communication. In other words, institutions have a significant role in confronting the difficulties faced by the LGBQI+ community and young people in general. Furthermore, institutions are responsible for developing well-rounded graduates regarding societal challenges and educating communities about acts of marginalisation against the LGBTQI+ community.”

Unequal higher education system

On December 16, 2017, former President Jacob Zuma publicly announced free higher education for poor and working-class students with a combined household income of R350,000 per year. He also declared that NSFAS had been effectively changed to a 100 percent grant.

This follows the student-led #FeesMustFall protest movement, which began mid-October 2015. Students nationwide began organising and taking to the streets to demand free decolonised higher education. This was the most excellent student-led demonstration since the historic 1976 Soweto uprising, despite the government’s ostensibly free education.

Protests continue to erupt at campuses every year during the registration period. This is in response to financial and academic exclusions, inefficient NSFAS management, insufficient enrolment capacity, and exorbitant registration fees charged by institutions of higher learning.

Education in South Africa is not equal. Students continue to voice against education commercialisation since it advantageously benefits the economically and racially privileged class. However, year in and year out, young South African people are confronted with the same issues, and the ANC-led government’s negligence is visible more than ever before.

Given the country’s current socio-economic challenges, students face unspeakable problems in universities and after graduation, as many of our traditional black institutions have low graduate employability percentages, implying that young people spend more than three years in universities with no prospects of employment. South African institutions are contributing to the problem by continuing to offer qualification programmes that need to be more in touch regarding the current skills demand.

“Nothing for us without us”

The existing South African political system is exclusionary to young people. For far too long, we have allowed the older generation to make decisions that directly affect us, despite the fact that they do not experience them. Young people have no voice or influence in government. To achieve inclusive political participation, as is our democratic prerogative, young people must first learn that “We are on our own”.

We have accepted the unacceptable for so long because we have normalised the anomalous conditions. It is now time to make a difference; young people have the potential to defend the ostensibly beneficial features of our South African democracy. In doing so, we must educate ourselves, empower ourselves, and fight for our liberation. As we approach the 2024 general elections, it is critical to remember you have a huge role to play in correcting the abnormal socio-economic issues we are presently facing. Youth in South Africa have the numbers to effect change, and your vote is your voice. Change is at your disposal.

Nina Simone and Weldon Irvin sang: “To be young, gifted, and black”. In its most basic version, the song was intended to honour black excellence and serve as a call to action for people to be proud of their heritage and fight against oppression (Bell, 2023). The relevance of this song is drawn from the third verse to meet the context and articulation of the perspective being discussed in this piece. “We must begin to tell our young, there’s a world waiting for you.”

This statement highlights the significance of youth because the promise of tomorrow rests with them. Regardless of current socio-economic imbalances, young people’s anguished cries will continue to haunt those with the power to change their current circumstances. Suffering from unemployment, poverty, GBV, and an unequal higher education system has been an unavoidable part of young people’s ordinary lives in South Africa.

Thus, as we reflect on the victories of those who fought for us in 1976, young people must embrace resilience, pride, and an unwavering fight against the current status quo. However, young people must also accept responsibility, as we also perpetuate GBV and discrimination against those who identify with the LGBTQI+ community. As a result, before we go out, we must first fix our own house. We must call out each other, educate each other, and, most importantly, act and be proactive in changing our current conditions.

Vusumzi Gqalane is a Graduate Positioning Systems Success Coach at the Centre for Teaching and Learning, University of Free State. He is currently a Masters degree candidate in Governance and Political Transformation. He writes here in his personal capacity.