7323 2011.7.29 A group of unemployed men huddle around a little fire in Belgravia, near Joburg CBD. Temperatures have plummeted and people are warned to dress warmly and make sure their pets have shelter. Picture: Cara Viereckl

The Youth must work as a united force just like the generation of 1976 did. Thirty-six years ago, the youth of Soweto took to the streets against the apartheid government’s decision to make Afrikaans the medium of instruction in black schools.

Their struggle was not only about Afrikaans but the entire system of apartheid, in which black people were treated like second-class citizens in the place of their birth.

Many ended up in prison while others had to leave the country.

Many families disintegrated as a result of the brutal and violent repression that followed.

Since then, we have seen the election of a democratic government based on the will of the people as outlined in the 1955 people’s document, the Freedom Charter.

Today’s youth take pride in the foundation previous generations laid – and the youth of our country continues to play an active role in determining their future through structures such as the National Youth Development Agency.

We celebrated this year’s Youth Day under the theme “Our Freedom wasn’t Free” because we are mindful of the fact that many died for our country to be where it is today.

We dare not fail them and we must not to falter in our pursuit to improve the quality of life of our people.

Those who were at the forefront of the 1976 revolution would be proud of the changes that were brought about by the democratic government.

They will be pleased to notice that no government has been imposed on them, that people are encouraged to speak and learn in the languages of their own choice – and that no child, irrespective of creed or colour, is deprived a right to education.

Those who laid their own lives will be comforted to learn that every African child in Gauteng is guaranteed a government bursary based on merit.

In fact, most pupils who passed their Grade 12 with distinction have been provided with bursaries to pursue their studies at tertiary level.

No child goes to school hungry, thanks to the nutrition programme we have in place.

Nor is any child is turned away from school if the parents cannot afford to pay school fees.

We have succeeded in providing safety in our schools and the incidence of crime has drastically reduced.

Through school governing bodies, parents are now actively involved in the education of their children.

In 1976, there were few children in school and university; today, now more people have more opportunities.

The government has put in place institutions to support young people.

Indeed, the doors of learning and culture have been opened as stated in the Freedom Charter.

While the 1976 generation had a common enemy in the evil apartheid system, today’s generation is faced with a totally different type of enemy.

Their challenges range from HIV/Aids and drug abuse to moral decay and joblessness.

These factors are tearing the moral fibre of our society apart, stealing the promise of young lives and destroying families.

These challenges should galvanise the youth to work as a united force just like the 1976 generation. For this to happen, young people must participate in structures and organisations that have their interests at heart.

By getting involved in youth formations and other civil structures, a sense of belonging is achieved, which then helps to channel their energy to a specific cause. This kind of involvement gives one a purpose in life. It is this purpose in life that young people must use to define themselves and pursue with unparalleled vigour and zest.

As part of the Youth Month celebrations, the Gauteng government will roll out the Drug Treatment Centres Campaign to curb substance abuse.

We are also establishing Youth Township Hubs in each region. These will promote entrepreneurial initiatives and job creation for youths in Gauteng.

During this month we will launch the Artisan Programme. The programme will provide and equip young people with skills that are relevant to the current economic challenges.

We are confident that with these registered achievements and many others, the 1976 struggle was not in vain. The blood that was shed has nurtured our democracy and strengthens our resolve to fight the current scourge of poverty, unemployment and disease.

We salute the generation of selfless revolutionaries and hope today’s youth can emulate their courage and commitment.

l Nomvula Mokonyane is the premier of Gauteng