Late SA photographer Sam Nzima with his photograph of 13-year-old Hector Pieterson being carried after being shot by police during the 1976 Soweto uprising. Picture AP/African News Agency (ANA)
Forty-two years ago, thousands of schoolchildren in Soweto marched peacefully in protest against the forced use of Afrikaans as a compulsory medium of instruction in schools.

The march was violently attacked by the apartheid police, using tear gas and live ammunition. This unleashed mass anger and a sustained, nationwide rebellion against the apartheid regime, which ultimately played a huge role in its downfall.

Following almost two decades of sustained mass action, apartheid finally crumbled and gave way to the new parliamentary dispensation which was inaugurated in 1994.

Was 1976 the start of a revolution? Some would say “yes”, and point to the fact that apartheid-based legislation has largely been expunged from our statute books. Others, like the late Dr Neville Alexander, would disagree on the basis that (to quote his words): “If anything, the post-apartheid state is more capitalist than its apartheid parent.”

There has been no change in the economic relations which govern society (except perhaps that the rich have grown richer, and the poor, poorer), or in the way the state is managed. In short, if June 1976 triggered a revolution, then that revolution was interrupted or waylaid by an element whose purpose was not fundamental social change, but simply regime change.

For most South Africans, the country has been “liberated” from an apartheid nightmare to a neo- liberal hell-on-earth.

Today, we are one of the most unequal societies in the world. Our reality is characterised by mass poverty and unemployment, lack of decent housing and service delivery, high levels of crime and corruption, poor health care and a range of other social injustices. Racial discrimination has never disappeared, and in fact, is stronger than ever before. And we have a form of democracy that ensures that power remains securely in the hands of the agents of capitalism.

June 16 is celebrated as Youth Day, but what have the youth got to celebrate? It is estimated that half the children who start out in school never make it to matric.

Despite the heroic contributions to the Struggle for liberation made by the youth, education standards remain debased, and this is reflected in the permanent crisis in the schools for the oppressed.

Youth unemployment is estimated (using the expanded definition) at 67.4%. It is estimated that the HIV infection rate among teenagers has doubled, with young girls particularly at risk. Throughout the country, there is a lack of cultural and sporting amenities and opportunities, leading to further impoverishment of the lives of working-class youth.

Is the answer to vote for this or that political party? Should we petition government to spend more on poverty-relief programmes? What about taking to the streets in our masses? Or should we engage in a campaign of targeted boycotts?

There is no single, simple answer. The challenge facing young people who are seriously concerned about rescuing their future is to immediately and urgently engage with the issues that are dominating their lives, and that are condemning the youth to a future of bleakness, poverty and want.

It has been observed that “Practice without theory is blind. Theory without practice is sterile. Theory becomes a material force as soon as it is absorbed by the masses”.

Perhaps herein lies a guideline to youth activists. Let’s not blindly race into action without a proper understanding of the conditions we face. Similarly, let’s not lose ourselves in theorising about our problems without acting to change society. Theory and practice, then, are two sides of the same coin.

Questions which should be engaging our youth today include:

How do we contribute to the building of a united, anti-capitalist movement?

If 1994 signalled the end of racial discrimination, why is society still so obsessed with “race”?

If capitalism is the true enemy, should our discourse not shift to one of class relations in society? Should we not be pondering how to build working-class consciousness and power?

What is “true” democracy? Is it not “government of the people, by the people, for the people”? If so, then it is as clear as daylight that we are not living in a democracy.

How do we change this?

The anti-capitalist struggle is a global one. Does this not imply that we need to unite in struggle across national boundaries? On a day-to-day basis there are many practical things young people could do.

For one, young people need to read, and read avidly - the classics such as The Wretched of the Earth, Fontamara, Animal Farm, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists The list is endless.

In the apartheid era young people read as a way of resisting the system, as a defence against the enslavement of their minds. It should be no different now. What is needed, above all, is independent, critical thinking.

The Joint Cultural Societies urges the youth generally to continue to play their historic role as part of the cutting edge of change. Young people should also take and create opportunities to organise - at our schools, in our communities. SRCs, PTSAs, civics, sports clubs, religious organisations.

We need to instil a culture of democracy that respects and enlists the wishes of all. It is ultimately on the basis of mass, nationwide people’s democracy that we will take back the bright future promised by the sacrifices of our forebears in 1976. - Joint Cultural Societies

* Our next event is on June 16 from 10am to 12.30pm at Kaaf Human Rights Centre, 28 Sir Lowry Road, Cape Town. Access and parking at back of building in Gore Street.