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Forty-six years on, June 16 is more than a generational mission

To fulfil the vital national mission of ending inequality, poverty, and unemployment, we must spare no effort to place education at the centre of our national concerns, says the writer. Picture: Nokuthula Mbatha/African News Agency(ANA)

To fulfil the vital national mission of ending inequality, poverty, and unemployment, we must spare no effort to place education at the centre of our national concerns, says the writer. Picture: Nokuthula Mbatha/African News Agency(ANA)

Published Jun 16, 2022


By Xola Pakati

Forty-six years after the June 16 student uprisings in 1976, the youth of South Africa face many problems and challenges which require that we place education at the centre of our national priorities.

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Only 55% of young people attain a matric pass while a mere three percent get a TVET college or equivalent qualification every year. A total of 42% of young people do not receive a qualification at all.

Furthermore, seven out of 10 young people are unemployed. According to an accredited addictions counsellor at Akeso Clinic in uMhlanga in KwaZulu-Natal, “drug use among the country’s youth is rife and unfortunately continues to escalate.”

We could catalogue more horrid indicators about the state of young people. What is common about such indicators is that they all perpetuate and reproduce the inequality, poverty, and unemployment “ticking time bomb” which has, in truth, begun to detonate in local communities.

As with those of the nation as a whole, the problems of young people need urgent resolution. The urgency is all the more pressing because slow economic growth, Covid-19, our own institutional limitations and now recently the war in Ukraine, all conspire to slow down progress towards the achievement of the National Development Plan (NDP) targets.

Social partners – government, business, labour and community – need to devise a realistic emergency national plan about the attainment of NDP targets.

But this will also require a push from social and political activists who must not forget the aphorism of Frederick Douglass: “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” In all its three spheres, citizens need to keep government on its toes so that it delivers on its promise of a better life for all the people. On the other hand, business should also be pressured to invest in the economy because more than 70% of South Africa’s wealth is in private hands. Above all, society should continuously be organised to be active participants in their own development.

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Learning remains one of the most important and obligatory tasks for young people in any society. Student, youth and other formations in our society ought to worry that as much as 42% of young people fall by the wayside and join the ranks of the unemployed as the least educated. Hendrik Verwoerd intended for this outcome and we cannot honour him by allowing it to continue.

By 2030, the NDP envisaged a schooling system “characterised by learners and teachers who are highly motivated;” principals who manage schools effectively, providing “administrative and curriculum leadership”, parents who are involved in the schools where their children attend, “committed and professional teachers (who) have good knowledge of the subjects they teach”, among others.

This goal does not have to wait for 2030. It can be realised sooner, provided that we have the will to work to achieve it. Every day, we should ask ourselves the question: am I as a young person, student, activist, parent, principal, teacher and official of the Department of Basic Education keeping my side of the bargain?

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So far, we are neither failing nor succeeding at the rate demanded by the enormity of the challenge at hand.

On a different but related note, the Martinican psychiatrist, philosopher and revolutionary, Frantz Fanon, is well known, among others, for the assertion: “Each generation must, out of relative obscurity, discover its mission, fulfil it, or betray it.”

The postulation is, however, often expunged from the rest of what he wrote, which runs the risk of inspiring a de-contextualised meaning and impolitic causes of political action, which serve sectarian rather than collective national interests.

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Fanon also wrote: “In underdeveloped countries the preceding generations have both resisted the work or erosion carried by colonialism and also helped on the maturing of the struggles of today. We must rid ourselves of the habit, now that we are in the thick of the fight, of minimising the action of our fathers or of feigning incomprehension when considering their silence and passivity.”

Previous generations had: “fought as well as they could, with the arms that they possessed then; and if the echoes of their struggle have not resounded in the international arena, we must realise that the reason for this silence lies less in their lack of heroism than in the fundamentally different international situation of our time.

“It needed more than one native to say ‘We've had enough’, more than one peasant rising crushed, more than one demonstration put down before we could today hold our own, certain in our victory. As for we who have decided to break the back of colonialism, our historic mission is to sanction all revolts, all desperate actions, all those abortive attempts drowned in rivers of blood.”

Evidently, Fanon saw generational missions as a continuum and integral part of a people’s struggle for liberation and post-colonial self-determination. So, fundamentally, the issue is not so much one of a generational mission as in the pressing challenges of a people at a given period in history and, in that context, the role of the different social strata and classes in resolving such challenges.

It may well be that one or more social strata and classes have, for one reason or another, a greater role to play than others, but national challenges and tasks require all hands on deck.

Whereas the immediate cause for the June 16, 1976 student uprising was the imposition of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction in African schools, colonial and apartheid oppression was the original sin.

To fulfil the vital national mission of ending inequality, poverty, and unemployment, we must spare no effort to place education at the centre of our national concerns.

*Pakati is executive mayor of the Buffalo City Metropolitan Municipality, chairperson of the South African Cities Network Council, and deputy president of the South African Local Government Association.