Young South Africans must, once again, claim their future
Note to editors: the following remarks were delivered by the Leader of the Democratic Alliance (DA), Mmusi Maimane, at the Hector Pieterson Memorial in Orlando West, Soweto, today. The Leader was joined by DA Gauteng Provincial Leader, John Moodey, DA National Spokesperson, Refiloe Nt'sekhe, Regional Chairperson, Heinrich Volminkand DA Youth Gauteng Chairperson, Pogiso Mthimunye.
My fellow South Africans,
42 years ago, tens of thousands of young South Africans marched from their Soweto schools to the Orlando Stadium to protest having to learn their school work in Afrikaans. They marched for the right to be taught in their own mother tongue.
But this protest was about more than just a language. It was also about demanding a fair and just society. It was about wanting to be seen in their own country – to be recognised as valid citizens and important members of society. It was about fighting for equality, and the dignity that comes with this.
These children were expressing what millions of other South Africans felt. And when the police opened fire on them with live ammunition, killing hundreds and injuring many more, they were attacking each and every South African who also wanted these freedoms for themselves and their families.
The brutal assault by the government on those children in Soweto was an assault on all who suffered under Apartheid. And this is why the Soweto uprising became the spark that ignited the powder keg. It galvanised and united the struggle.
The children of 1976 didn’t hate the language, they hated what it stood for. They hated that it represented a system designed to keep them down – to turn them into second-rate citizens. They hated the system that would deny them a chance to live the life they chose – a life of value in which they could make a contribution to society.
What started as a protest for mother tongue education became a rallying cry for freedom and equality that focused and intensified the struggle. Fourteen years later, Apartheid would fall, Nelson Mandela would walk free and we would take our first steps as a united South Africa.
We are honoured today to have some of the veterans of the ’76 uprising here with us. Our guests include the mother, sisters and brothers of Thili Mabaso, a young Soweto child who lost his life in the uprising. Thili was only ten years old.
I would ask that you all stand now for a minute’s silence in tribute to these men and women, and in memory of their brothers and sisters who lost their lives that day.
Many of our freedoms today are because of their sacrifice. It is our duty to remember them and stand with them. And this includes those who have disappeared – people like Mbuyisa Makhubu, the young man who carried Hector Pieterson in that famous photograph. We dare not forget their stories.
Back then, they took to the streets in protest because their prospects in life were grim. They knew that these prospects wouldn’t improve unless they did something about it.
But today there are still freedoms that have not materialised for many South Africans. Four decades after the children of Soweto paid the ultimate sacrifice, our children are still not truly free, and the prospects for a young person leaving our broken education system are still grim.
As early as the foundation phase of school we have already failed our children. Four out of five children in grade 4 cannot comprehend what they read. How must these children complete the rest of their grades and one day enter the world of work? This education inequality will drag them down for the rest of their lives.
Two-thirds of South Africans under the age of 24 cannot find work, and many of them eventually give up looking. Our official unemployment statistics don’t even include these “discouraged job seekers”. When we say unemployment is at 27%, we only mean the people who are still actively searching for a job. Once we include those who have given up, this number shoots up to almost 37%.
That is the future that young people in South Africa must face. And thanks to our education system, which is consistently ranked among the worst in the world, most of these people are very poorly prepared to step into that future and make it their own.
So what must we do? How do we change the course we’re on?
If there is one lesson we can learn from 1976, it’s that any change you want to see has to come from you.
By now you must know that this government is not going to improve your prospects in life.
This government is not going to suddenly turn thousands of dysfunctional schools around and improve the quality of teaching. If that was their plan, they would have done so already.
They’re not going to limit the power of SADTU and prevent them from further hijacking and damaging our children’s education. SADTU is their alliance partner, and clearly more important to them than the fate of our children.
They’re not going to stop half our children from dropping out of school before they get to a matric exam. Improving the matric pass rate is more important to them than ensuring that all our children get an education.
They’re not going to open opportunities for our children after school through better access to colleges and universities, more internships, more apprenticeships, or any out-of-the-box thinking like a year of national civilian service. If they were going to any of these things, they would have by now.
They’re not going to suddenly become a caring government that acts in the interests of our children. Just last month police in Fochville opened fire with live ammunition on protesting school children. We stand here today and recall, with horror, what the Apartheid police did to children 42 years ago, but it’s still happening today by this government.
This government has proven, over two decades, that it neither can nor wants to improve the prospects of its young people. And so it falls to each and every young South African to learn from the class of ’76 and take matters into their own hands.
But I don’t mean go out and protest. I don’t mean use violence and put yourself in danger. I mean use your true power.
The children of Soweto ’76 laid down their lives for a better, more just South Africa. They helped ensure that each of us today has the freedom to replace a government that doesn’t work for them with one that will. That’s your power.
If you’ve come to realise that this government won’t fight for your future, then you can stand up to them. But this isn’t 1976. You don’t have to face their bullets. You can take the fight to them at the ballot box. That generation back then fought for freedom and for a better life. This generation today must continue this fight by using those freedoms to improve their lives.
Decide what it is you want in life – which opportunities you need to succeed, what kind of community you’d like to live in, what job you’d like to have, what education you’d like your children to receive.
Decide what a fair South Africa looks like to you. Is it one in which poor black South Africans remain locked out of the economy while connected cronies get rich through BEE deals and government contracts? Or is it one in which a growing, inclusive economy opens new opportunities for millions?
Decide what you’d like our society to look like. Do you want it to be divided and full of bitterness and blame, or would you rather live in peace, with kindness and respect among your fellow South Africans.
Do you believe that we were meant to hate and mistrust each other, or do you believe that we are better when we tackle our problems together? One nation with one united future.
Decide these things for yourself, and look carefully at the options available to you. And then use the power of your vote to stand up to this government.
Let the sacrifices of the Class of ‘76 not be in vain. They fought against Apartheid, but today there are those who want us to be apart again. You don’t have to accept this. Your voice in our democracy is just as loud as anyone else’s. Use it to help shape the South Africa you want to live in.
Together, we will build a country that works for all of us – a country that equips our children with a cradle-to-career plan to tackle the future.
A country where the social issues that hold our children back – issues like teenage pregnancy, the “blesser” culture, underage drinking, drugs and gangs – are spoken about openly.
A country where every single child is regarded as precious and given an education that will allow her or him to make the most of life’s opportunities.
A country the Class of ’76 would be proud of.
Issued by the DA, 15 June 2018