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Like the Class of ’76 the youth must find its voice to shape the future

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Younger voters queue at an IEC voting station at City Hall in Durban on May 29. The general election was characterised by poor voter turn-out, especially among the youth, says the writer. – Picture: Shelley Kjonstad / Independent Newspapers / Taken May 29, 2024

By Yershen Pillay

As South Africa commemorates the sacrifices of the youth who lost their lives on June 16, 1976, while fighting for the better education they believed in, the time is ripe for critical reflection 30 years after democracy on what has happened since.

Why have youth who have been committed to a just cause given way to those with a different outlook on life?

What began as a peaceful protest mushrooming among schools in Soweto in 1976 became a national protest against the imposition of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction. It showed unity in power, with profound results.

Thirty years after democracy, youth apathy was evident in the 2024 elections, according to the Electoral Commission of SA (IEC), and alarming. Have youth become so in tune with a social media culture that they may have omitted to understand the significance of what the Class of ’76 achieved in protest?

The May 29 election was characterised by poor voter turn-out, especially among youth. Although 11 million registered, fewer than that took part in the polls.

Overall, only 58% of registered voters participated. Why, in the digitally driven 21st century, are youth not exercising their democratic rights as championed and fought for by the youth of 1976?

Today, one should not ignore the sacrifices of the 1976 youth. But how did their example manifest itself 30 years after the birth of democracy? Instead of action, we have seen youth disengaged from democracy, as shown by the low voter turn-out. For instance, according to the IEC, despite the high registration of youth, in many areas, between 5% and 9% of registered youth voted.

Such inertia must not be allowed to continue if we wish to honour the memory of the Class of ’76. Admittedly, the youth have raised pressing issues such as unemployment and lack of opportunities, but their voice has been muted. Simply put, we are not making an impact. According to Statistics SA, the number of youths not in education, employment or training is about 3.4 million, which has remained roughly the same for the past decade.

The June 16 uprising began in Soweto and spread countrywide, profoundly changing the socio-political landscape in South Africa. The policies of the apartheid government, which resulted in the introduction of the Bantu Education Act in 1953, triggered the uprising.

The absence of youth voices in this election raises the question of what can be done to spark a youth renaissance in democratic South Africa.

It is necessary to celebrate the Class of ’76 and learn from and emulate them to create the future South Africa we want and deserve.

June 16 taught us that young people have the power and potential to create lasting change. However, the election results remind us of the need to do more to harness the tools of the 21st century for the better.

The iconic image of Hector Pieterson looms large over the June 16 celebrations. However, heroes of ’76 beyond Pieterson, for example, Kagiso Moloi in Krugersdorp, are among many unheralded activists who will have a plaque in their honour at schools as part of an initiative to acknowledge those who stood up to the state for better education.

Why this matters 30 years later is critical to changing how we look back on the past to help shape a better future. June 16 this year must be a time of renewal to leverage and articulate the need for more robust, newer youth voices.

We cannot be held hostage to the alarming unemployment statistics; the time for action is now.

What must be done to empower youth? Investment in skills and training is taking place across many levels. Artificial Intelligence is used throughout the country to open the gates to learning.

Every youth must have a skill – our commitment to youth development as a training authority on skills development and training. What youth do with the skills they receive is up to them. Ultimately, the youth should lead and we will support them.

To date, 9 501 youth have benefited from Chieta’s four Smart Skills Centres in the past six months. Many more Smart Skills Centres are to come.

The unemployment crisis makes it imperative to provide access to data resources, tailored training courses, support for job seekers, assistance for business start-ups and growth opportunities for SMMEs.

Our challenge is for South African institutions to do more to ensure we tackle the growing unemployment headache through tangible solutions in communities where it is most needed. We need to collaborate with urgency and creative solutions.

Inevitably, reflecting on the meaning of Youth Day, unpacking the growing unemployment statistics can leave one despondent. As a Chieta bent on innovating for change, we strive to go the extra mile to change the narrative. It is about empowering young people with the tools and resources they require.

There has never been a better time for the born-frees from 1994 to pay homage to the youth before them and genuinely appreciate the sacrifices made for equal education.

That we are an unequal society speaks to the enormous challenges we face in addressing them through multiple interventions.

Transformative innovations that create new economies will lead to more jobs for youth. Economic growth does not lead to youth development. Innovation does. We need to apply an innovation lens to the youth unemployment problem.

This requires policymakers to realise that pushing solutions onto youth will not deliver meaningful results. We must create new economies that will “pull” the jobs our youth desperately need.

With the technology available, we must better harness June 16’s legacies to inspire the democratic youth of South Africa to enjoy what their peers fought for.

After all, the right to vote was not an easy battle.

Youth must find their voice and make it heard. South Africa needs the voice of youth to shape the future we want.

In a 2022 youth survey, alarming findings showed that people between 18 and 26 checked their phones more than 30 times an hour, and 92% of respondents would not go more than 24 hours without their devices.

The poor showing by youth at the poll suggests they should have joined the voting day queues rather than spending time on their devices.

We owe the June 16 children no less than our respect and action. By following in their footsteps, we can make a difference for the better society we want and deserve.

Yershen Pillay is CEO of the Chemical Industries Education and Training Authority (CHIETA)