16 June 2014

South Africa: Youth Day - Struggle for Equal Education Continues

Photo: Aliou Goloko
A monument laid before the Hector Pieterson Museum in Soweto. Pieterson became the subject of an iconic image of the 1976 Soweto uprising when a news photograph by Sam Nzima of the dying boy, being carried by another student while his sister ran next to them, was published around the world.


Nearly 40 years ago on 16 June 1976, there was a youth uprising in Soweto. This was evoked by the learners at the time who did not want to be taught in Afrikaans. Their struggle was against an inferior education system that was setting them up for failure.

To honour the brave learners of 1976, Youth Day is observed as a public holiday to celebrate young people across the country.

Even though the uprising started in Soweto, it spread quickly across the country to other provinces where more young people defied Bantu Education. This was surely a catalyst for national liberation in the years to come.

As young people we only think about 16 June and what it is about when the day approaches. However we need to continuously contrast what is happening today with the events of 1976. This is a part of our history and heritage as young people. We need to draw lessons and inspiration from the youth of 1976.

Of course there are still a lot of open wounds and we cannot reflect on Youth Day without feeling pain that perhaps what those learners fought so hard against, an inferior education system for black people, is something that still exists in different forms.

Having been involved in the work of Equal Education I realize that 20 years into a democracy I may be fighting the same struggles the youth of 1976 fought. Today rural and township schools have poor infrastructure. They do not have enough teachers or textbooks. They do not have libraries and some do not even have electricity or water. Although black learners no longer have to learn in Afrikaans, the conditions under which they study still do not allow most of them to succeed.

When I think of 16 June I always relate to the life I'm living now, the life of an activist that fights for the rights of students and strives to give more information to youth about the things our parents went through and how we should honour them. As young people we need to continue with the struggle, especially for the mostly black working class, and cannot afford to be apolitical. As activists we can draw great inspiration from the youth of 1976.

Steve Biko and his generation fought a good fight. At Equal Education we always say each generation has its struggle. We have identified ours as a struggle for equal education, a struggle pioneered by the youth of 1976. That is what Youth Day means to me; it is a way to renew my hope for a better education for all.

Mapapu is a community leader at Equal Education.

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