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Youth must reclaim their African identity, common humanity

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Picture: Shelley Kjonstad/African News Agency (ANA) – Youngsters participate in a a rehersal for Joseph and the Amazing Tecnicolor Dreamcoat. Our children younger than 20 years of age make up some 35% of our population, which is steadily growing, without being anchored in the pillars of our democracy, writes the author.

By Professor Saths Cooper

You’ve got to admit that we sometimes really do things in style. We celebrated the various religious holy days during Freedom Month. We then started Africa Month with Workers Day, and we are now well into Youth Month.

On June 16, 1976 our children veritably led a revolution that struck the world and our consciences, ushering in the democracy that we’re daily coming to grips with in our different ways.

The 1976 generation have mostly become parents, if not grandparents, in an awful time when we have the world’s highest unemployment, with the world’s lowest employment, in what is arguably the richest country in Africa. In the mid-1980s some of us asked: “Are we creating a lost generation?” What we are seeing and hearing all around us are a few lost generations. Our children younger than 20 years of age make up some 35% of our population, which is steadily growing, without being anchored in the pillars of our democracy, save for a tiny minority that have the benefit of private schooling and access to private health, which 85% don’t.

In this scenario: of a large number of children going through what clearly seems the bothersome exercise of attending and actually learning inside a classroom of true teachers, it is not surprising that we have the endless list of problems that our children bear. We often add insult to the injury we afflict on our children. We are quick to be shocked by their behaviour, their attitudes, their protective sullenness and defiance of rules; that we routinely break, expecting our ever-present and witnessing children to be immune to our poor socialisation of what is our personal responsibility: our children, our future.

The attendant hopelessness and learned helplessness and dependency just grows exponentially, until it breaks with some grave incident or tragedy, that leaves us all agog, instantly disavowing any role in these events. Our society seems to move from one outburst to another, and we – the supposedly knowing adults – are suitably outraged, without the insight into how we allowed this state of affairs to happen in the first place.

Allow me to come off my pet high horse of adults behaving badly and reflect on the larger meaning of the African continent in relation to ourselves as we segued from Africa Day on May 25 – when the 60th anniversary of the African Union was somewhat mutely celebrated – and commemorating the 47th anniversary of the Soweto uprising. June 16 was only granted the official national status in 1995 after it was widely taken as such in 1994.

Having reflected on this more fully last year, it is abundantly clear that in the aftermath of that very fateful day in our pained and tortured history, there was a mass exodus of youth who left the country to take up arms against the apartheid state. Until the unbanning of the liberation organisations on February 2, 1990, many of this 1976-inspired generation lived in Southern African states in various forms of local integration, some still confined to training camps, especially in Angola, which became the heart of the resistance to Western interests and apartheid, which were roundly routed in the Battle of Cuito Cuanavale between August 18, 1987 and March 23, 1988, with the active involvement of the Angolans, Cuban fighters and Russian advisers.

Yet, outside of Freedom Park (our democracy’s only museum in our capital city) marking the formal cessation of hostilities on March 23, almost nothing is done to remember how we got here. Africa is another place. Most of us feel we are not on the southern tip of Africa, that we are part of and we are African. If we can continue to reduce Soweto to “riots” by “klip gooiers” (stone throwers), then we can understand the deliberate self-effacing narrative that plagues our liberation history. We can understand how those who played incidental, if any liberation role, can scream loudly of their often minimal contributions rising to visible leadership and public office, while those that truly gave their all, do not.

We can thus appreciate how narrow sectarian exclusivity has morphed into impenetrable walls of foes, instead of comrades with a great degree of common purpose, despite seeing the world differently. We can also understand how quickly we got here – to the degraded place that we now inhabit – where factions exist to plunder for only themselves. Essentially, the new “Ja Baas” men engrossed in self-serving at all costs, even when it excludes parents, siblings or offspring.

This is how we are negatively socialising our children. Take the easiest route to the most, whatever the cost. Why care about knowledge, skills, understanding, achievement, the world of work (where it does exist, especially in local government or other public service), being your brother/sister’s keeper. During interrogation and incarceration by apartheid thugs, we were often told “Who’s we? Speak for yourself!” And how we have made this colonised mantra all about oneself, self-admiring and absorbed, while around us there is such neediness and scratching for bare existence.

We turn on anybody, who we wish to cancel, viciously turning on those who come here to escape worse penury. We even blame them for our lot. Sad it is when I see posts by those who were in the liberation struggle, railing against and othering “foreign nationals”, without any thought about how demeaning our attitude is and how it eats away at the core of our claim to be part of one human family.

After all, science tells us that some 95% of the world’s population can trace their DNA to the oldest living ethnic group on earth, the Khomani San in the Southern Kgalagadi Desert, bordering South Africa, Namibia and Botswana. It’s high time we claimed being African, and reclaim our common humanity.

*Prof Saths Cooper is President of the Pan African Psychology Union, a former leader of the Black Consciousness Movement and a member of the 1970s group of activists.