Youth Day 2021: to stop things falling apart, empower our youth

Young people and students have always led courageous movements of change in society, pushing for positive social transformation.

This is what happened 45 years ago in South Africa on 16 June 1976, when schoolchildren and youths protesting peacefully against the oppressive chains of Bantu education imposed by the apartheid government were shot down brutally by the South African armed forces. Forty-five years later, the inhumanity continues. Each year, new challenges, traumas and themes stand out starkly as young people work to achieve inclusive and equitable development and push for the government to meet its commitments to democracy.

We honour the young people who make huge sacrifices for our society and we seek out opportunities for courageous engagement with young people who wish to take up the torch of leadership from young leaders who have gone before.

While individual and peer-to-peer support happens and is good within itself, more organised movements that work towards the type of systemic change that will improve the situation in which the youth find themselves should be encouraged to emerge among the young people of our day. History has shown that mass movements have the greatest impact.

When it comes to our young people, nothing should be done for them, without them.

Initiatives arising from within the youth community should be supported by those adults who know how their own lives were changed by support from elders when they were young and working to improve society.

Our democratic order allowed young people a brief respite in the 1990s, but quite soon it became clear that the doors of learning and culture were shut due to high fees that led to many young people’s exclusion from the better-resourced schools and universities.

As if this wasn’t sufficient challenge, young women are continually subjected to extreme levels of gender-based violence, and unemployment among young people is the highest it has ever been in South Africa. Differently gendered youth are continually at the risk of violent attacks, including murder and rape, and are constantly being made to feel unwelcome and excluded.

Each Youth Day allows us to reflect on and revisit the trauma of 1976 as part of our collective national remembrance, which evokes the need for systemic redress in our society.

In 2021, “things fall apart” dominates our national discourse, from high unemployment levels to the lack of hope and alienation that is being expressed by so many of our young people. With the restrictions on travel because of Covid-19, it is imperative that all avenues should be found to support young people with data and ways to connect digitally.

In the midst of the social and economic ravages wrought by the Covid-19 pandemic and the carnage wrought by corruption, we cannot blame the youth for their despair. We feel it too. We, as they, have gazed aghast at the corruption and systematic looting from government coffers by those in government office, and even at the top echelons of leadership.

These are the very leaders who our youth and all other citizens counted on for the custodianship of funds aimed at strengthening employment opportunities, offering better access to quality schooling, boosting health systems, and for safety, gender equity, food for all and more.

All this corrosive corruption must come under intense scrutiny and all responsible must be held accountable for the failed promises to our youth, their futures and their human rights. Their future is our collective future.

The Desmond & Leah Tutu Legacy Foundation calls upon our government, and business leaders, to rise beyond platitudes on Youth Day.

Government and business leaders can instead honour the youth of 16 June 1976 by taking action to help and protect the youth of 16 June 2021. Government and business leaders can call on the youth of 2021 to express their anxieties and priorities in an open forum, and they can take decisive action that stops things falling further apart, and that addresses and alleviates everything that is arresting our young people’s growth and development.

It is up to each generation of young people to determine and voice the priorities for their generation and to act on them. It is up to the government, business leaders and us to create a forum in which we can hear them.

The Foundation also supports the call for a drastic reduction in data charges. This will enable young people to connect with each other more and more so that they can invest in their futures in a meaningful way, through education and collaboration. In the absence of expectations of real employment growth over the next few years, a proactive, scaled-up plan must be seriously considered. Openness to change is integral to being young. The challenge is to channel this desire for change into organised forums, moving away from individual responses to modern challenges and towards more organised and institutionalised forms of response.

The Foundation is a partner to the Defend our Democracy campaign, and fully endorses the youth assembly the campaign has organised for 16 June 2021 in Cape Town, South Africa.

This initiative is aimed at energising movements for positive change in our society so that young people regain the hope they have lost. Indeed, we all, young and old, need to regain the hope and collective dignity and self-respect that have been all but destroyed by a widespread lack of ethical leaders.

The Foundation believes that an annual youth assembly that takes place every 16 June will provide a platform for young people to engage openly with the leaders in our society, allowing them to demand ethical and moral behaviour of those in power. Organised youth leadership and engagement on an intergenerational basis and addressing leadership in government is crucial.

The call for courageous leadership from all faith communities, as well as those who have no faith tradition, is growing louder by the day. There is much work to do. How many leaders today are drawing us away from the impoverishment of apartheid and corruption, and towards the ethical values that serve, protect and nourish not only our peoples, but also the earth?

Details of the youth assembly can be found here:

Photo Credit: (Themba Hadebe/AP Photo)