Young people’s access to healthcare has been forgotten in Youth month

Published Jun 26, 2024


Lerato Mthunzi

Every year, South Africans honour the ultimate sacrifice made by many young people on 1976, June 16, when they rose up to fight with their bare hands, against the full might of the Apartheid state.

Young people refused to allow the state to impose Afrikaans as a language of instruction.

The resulting massacre, which saw up to 700 mostly young people killed, and thousand more injured, whilst others were forced into a life of exile, is forever etched in the world’s memory, as an event of incredible heroism at the face of immense brutality from a repressive regime.

That fateful day’s uprising, and those that followed elsewhere in the country, saw major upheaval in many South African townships.

The Soweto Uprising, proved to be the catalyst that was needed to enliven the struggle against Apartheid after the devastation caused by the wide scale jailing of prominent black leaders in trials of the 60’s such as the Rivonia Trial, and the banning of political parties such as the ANC and PAC.

For the Apartheid state, any sense of stability was lost for good from 1976 onwards. It was only 15 years later, in 1990, that Nelson Mandela was released, and the end of formal apartheid beckoned.

Sadly, 48 years later, young people do not have much to celebrate this month. They, in the majority, are suffering under the burden of high unemployment, poverty and inequality.

Politicians are currently haggling over positions as part of the process of forming a new government, after the results of the May 2024 election came out with no outright winner.

What is missing in the conversations that are being held, is the view of young people. There is very little information, as to how this new government plans to tackle the issue of high unemployment among young people, which according to StatsSA, is at about 45%.

There is a palpable lack of opportunity, and a real sense of hopelessness and despondency amongst many young people. We, as health workers, are at the coalface of dealing with some of the consequences of this state of affairs.

Joblessness has been linked to health problems such as depression, suicide, and substance abuse. In our June 16 statement, in 2023, we stated that:

Mental health is a significant issue among the youth in South Africa. According to a UNICEF South Africa U-Report poll released in 2021, 65% of young people stated that they had some form of a mental health issue but did not seek help.”

Sadly this state of affairs has not improved in any manner shape or form. Political players do not even mention in their election manifestos, the mental health of young people, as a point of consideration in this brutal capitalist system.

The country treats young people badly, yet they are expected to be upstanding future leaders and citizens.

The failure of the government to adequately resource the provision of health care services for the majority of South Africans simply exacerbates an already unbearable situation.

If implemented properly, the National Health Insurance (NHI), might begin to provide some relief for many young South Africans, by ensuring that all their primary health care needs are met in a qualitative and equitable manner.

Additionally, the spectre of hunger is a constant worry for many young people. Just a few days ago, on June 6, to no fanfare, UNICEF released a report on child malnutrition in South Africa.

It states that South Africa is one of 20 countries that account for 65 per cent of all children living in severe child food poverty globally.

It further states that, “23 percent of children in South Africa are classified in that category and are at risk of life-threatening malnutrition and related health complications.”

These are alarming statistics. The fact that this topic is not front and centre of any discussion amongst the political parties, as they form a new government is distressing.

It paints a picture of a political elite that is aloof, and totally removed from the real issues affecting a major part of the future citizenry of our country.

Whoever will lead both the National Department of Health and the provincial portfolios, their urgent and immediate task should be to implement the NHI immediately.

This means abandoning austerity measures and resourcing the health sector adequately. This also means abolishing the role of the private sector in the provision of healthcare services.

All our resources must be geared towards providing the best healthcare for everyone. Banning the private sector guarantees this, because no one is able to opt-out of the system, and the public cannot continue to be charged excessive rates just so a few private healthcare companies can enrich themselves.

Currently, South Africa has a two tier health care system where a small minority, are able to access all the specialists, and they have access to all the best hospitals and all the resources because they can afford, whilst the working class and the poor die unnecessarily in under-resourced and understaffed public healthcare facilities.

To solve this challenge, a roll out of a radical recruitment strategy at all hospitals and clinics is also needed. Many young doctors and nurses are unemployed, after having received full training.

These young, qualified professionals are simply crying out to be part of the solution. They must be given an opportunity to serve their fellow citizens, where they are needed the most.

This moment is an opportunity for young people to make themselves heard, to force their way into the rooms where decisions about their futures are made.

And those in power owe it to young people to drastically improve the provision of healthcare services and remove the inequity that has such a detrimental effect on the health of so many young people, who in majority are black and poor.

Thousands of young people paid with their blood in 1976 so that we can all live in a just and equitable society, and we cannot let their sacrifices for freedom be in vain.

*Lerato Mthunzi is the General Secretary of the Health and Allied Workers Indaba Trade Union.

** The views expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of IOL or Independent Media.

IOL Opinion