As we mark the 36th anniversary of the 1976 Soweto uprising and 18 years since the advent of democracy in South Africa, the question we should ponder is: does June 16 still carry a meaning for our youth?
There is no better way to reflect on this question than to assess the state of South African youth in the economy, in politics and social affairs today.
We shall, in the future, reflect on youth and politic, and youth in social affairs. Today we only cast our spotlight on youth and economy.
As we focus on the state of youth, we need first to refresh our memories about what, in the main, was at the centre of that fateful morning of June 16, 1976.
Whereas 1976 was a protest against the system of Apartheid and the decree of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction in schools; it was fundamentally about quality education for all.
June 16 was a protest by youth against the system of Bantu Education, which sought to perpetuate the oppression of blacks by whites. It was a youth revolt against Henrick Verwoerd’s philosophy of education which sought to preserve white privileges by condemning blacks into “hewers of wood and drawers of water”.
In Verwoerd’s view, blacks were to serve only as a labour reservoir for whites. This – hewers of wood and drawers of water – was a philosophy of education in as much as it was an economic policy of apartheid.
Thus, 1976 was fundamentally about the demand for quality education – the kind of education that will propel the youth into the mainstream economy. This was the dream that the generation of 1976 refused to defer.
The power of education in development of nations and people is understood all over the world and Verwoerd was aware of this.
While education is a catalyst of development, the absence of it or its poor quality can curtail the development of a nation and her people. Thus there is a symbiotic relationship between the participation of youth in the economy and the successes or failures of an education system.
What then is the state of youth in the economy?
The state of youth in the economy is appalling. It is characterised by poor education and high unemployment.
This is despite the good intentions of post-apartheid South Africa to prioritise education. From expenditure on education to access, quantitative improvements are there for everyone to see.
Unfortunately, education budgets on their own are not indicators of the quality of education. If they were, South Africa would be amongst the best in the world. For example, government budget on education has increased by over 551 per cent between 1994 and 2012, from R31.8 billion to R207 billion respectively.
However, these increases have not been accompanied by improvement in the quality of education provided. The return on investment in education is ridiculously low.
Consider, for example, the disparity between enrolments in our schooling system and outputs. Of the 1.440 000 children who enrolled in grade 1 in 1998, only 552 072 managed to get to grade 12 in 2009. Only 334 745 of them passed, and only 109 706 passed with university endorsement. This means that only 7.8 per cent of the learners who enter the schooling system make it to university.
Therein lies the question: where are the million leaners who did not make it to matric? Could it be that they will or have become the “hewers of wood and drawers of water” that Henrick Verwoerd envisaged in his philosophy of education?
In higher education, statistics on enrolment and throughput are disheartening. In 2002, about 131 000 students enrolled for first degree. Only 46 200 passed in record time while 20 600 were still struggling to complete their studies in 2008 – five years after their first year enrolment.
More than 71 200 dropped out before they completed their studies; this is more than half (52 per cent) of students who enrolled in 2002. Again, we find ourselves having to ask the question: Where are these youths?
The failure of post-apartheid South Africa properly to address the challenge of education is condemning the future of many our youths. While they may not literally be hewing wood and drawing water, many of our youth are languishing in poverty and hopelessness.
They have been condemned to swell the ranks of vagrants and the so-called unemployable that constitute the horrible statics on unemployment. According to the national planning commission, more than 40 per cent of young people under the age of 30 are unemployed. More than 72 per cent of the unemployed are young people between the age of 15 and 24. This is the depressing state of the majority of youth in the economy today.
All these have come about as a result of the failures of post-apartheid South Africa fundamentally to improve the quality of education since 1994. The dreams of millions of young people remain shattered.
The failures of the current government to arrest the collapse of education in Eastern Cape, Limpopo and elsewhere, only serves to perpetuate the legacy of apartheid. It reduces June 16 into a meaningless annual ritual.
The impasse on the interventions in Eastern Cape and recently in Limpopo, both related to the provision of the right to education, paints a picture of a leadership that is complicit in maiming the future of South African youth.
It is appalling that 5 months into the academic calendar, the children of Limpopo are still waiting to receive their text books. It is concerning that irresponsible unionism continues to deny the youth of Eastern Cape and elsewhere, the right to quality education 18 years after the advent of democracy.
Where was the voice of youth? It has been conspicuous by its absence. Both state and political youth formations have failed to provide leadership in the middle of the education calamity.
Instead of organising an education summit to reverse the legacy of Verwoerd, the National Youth Development Agency – a holdings company of the ANC Youth League – has been organising kissing festivals in protests against imperialism.
Until we address the crisis of education, June 16 will have no meaning to the majority of young people. It will remain a platform for the Big Man to wear expensive suits and harangue the nation with a litany of false promises. That is if he arrives on time to the national youth day event!