Youth can be a powerful force for change

By Ebrahim Ebrahim Time of article published Jun 15, 2020

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As we celebrate Youth day on June 16th, we are reminded that this is a month of historical significance for the liberation movement. June 16th saw the mobilisation of the youth, and it became a great inspiration to us who were incarcerated on Robben Island. We witnessed many youth flooding into Robben Island prison, who received political education and imbibed revolutionary theory. Many youth went into exile and swelled the ranks of Umkhonto we Sizwe and the youth wing of the ANC. 

The whole month of June has historical significance for our movement. It was on June 26th 1950 that the ANC, in support of the workers killed by the apartheid regime on May 1st 1950, called for a national strike.  The workers were protesting against the Suppression of Communism Act, which outlawed the Communist Party of South Africa. The movement correctly stated that this draconian Act was aimed not only at Communists, but the entire liberation movement. 

It was no accident that both the ANC and the South African Indian Congress (SAIC) chose June 26th 1952 to launch the historic Defiance Campaign which saw 8,000 volunteers defy unjust laws and court imprisonment. It was also June 26th 1955 that was chosen to hold the historic Congress of the People assembly in Kliptown, an assembly which I attended. 

There is an anecdote that I recollect from 1960 which is particularly relevant for our youth today. I had gone to see Chief Albert Luthuli in Stanger with a youth delegation from the Transvaal Indian Youth Congress. We met Chief Luthuli in a bus, which was because he was under a banning order. 

He related a story to us about a village in which the youth were frustrated with their parents and elders. They felt restrained and wanted to be more revolutionary. Then one day they decided to exile all their parents and elders. Having taken over the village they were confused and didn’t know what to do, and the village was in a state of chaos. There happened to be one bright boy who said he knew what was to be done. 

The boy very effectively guided them on all matters regarding the village and other issues. One day they confronted this boy and asked him how it was that he was so clever, because without him they were paralyzed. The boy replied, “When you exiled your parents and elders I did not do the same. I hid them there in a cave.” The message Chief Luthuli was giving us was clear: that no matter how enthusiastic we are, we need the wise guidance of our elders. 

Our youth have played a critical role in the struggle for liberation. We remember people like Solomon Mahlangu and others who were prepared to challenge the apartheid regime. They led the way for the unfolding mass revolutionary struggle, which resulted in the collapse of apartheid

Many of our youth today are gravitating towards populist movements, and away from the ANC. This is an indictment of our ANC Youth League. The abject failure of our youth league to mobilise the youth behind the ANC is in part due to the infighting between factions, and the lack of leadership by the parent body. 

To honour the youth of June 16th we need to put an end to the divisions, factional fighting, and corruption in our organisation. President Cyril Ramaphosa has correctly called for the unity of the organisation, and to restore our movement to its past glory. Our youth, if properly mobilised, could become an important emotive force for real transformation. 

* Ebrahim Ismail Ebrahim is a former Deputy Minister of International Relations, Robben Island prisoner, and was among the first members of MK in Natal.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL.

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