16 June is an important date on our national calendar. It is a day of remembrance for the heroic students who protested against discrimination on the grounds of race, colour and language during the Soweto Uprising of 1976. 43 years later, we acknowledge the struggles of young people who fought against hate and the violation of human rights whilst also dealing with the ongoing battles of inequality, injustice and unfairness in South Africa.
Unemployment and lack of opportunities
Following recent statistics, it is clear that unemployment, especially amongst the youth, is a significant problem for South Africa. According to Stats SA, by the end of 2018, youth unemployment was close to 40%. This raises major concerns over the prospects of young people being able to make a living and essentially, survive in our already grossly unequal country.
For many, this youth unemployment crisis manifests in the lack of available jobs despite sufficient qualifications. After graduating from high school, colleges and universities, the chances of a student finding jobs within reach of their qualifications are slim, since many organisations require prior job experience even for entry-level positions. This not only prevents students from becoming independent individuals, but also provides a significant obstacle to embarking on a career path in their various fields.
Despite the ANC calling the high unemployment rate a national disaster and the recent remarks by President Ramaphosa regarding lowering the barriers to employment, there has not been many positive outcomes in recent years. In fact, eNCA reported that 237 000 people have lost their jobs since the beginning of this year, once again highlighting the major job crisis in our country.
This dire situation causes a deeper cycle of poverty and inequality, one that the next generation will unfortunately. It is crucial that both the public and private sectors determine how this cycle can be broken in order for the younger generations to be empowered with opportunities to prosper and succeed.
Mental Health, Trauma and Moving Forward
A terrifying trend in young people around the world, including South Africa, is the growing epidemic of mental illnesses. As recommended by the United Nations’ socio-economic rights committee, mental healthcare should be prioritised including mental health awareness. Civil society and government should be working together on this important task.
However, we are not seeing much being done. As expressed by students from various educational institutions, there is a worrying trend of having “talks” about the importance of mental health, but with no implementation of actual policies for improving access to healthcare. This leaves many with the impression that both the government and educational institutions are only having these events for the marketing benefits, rather than any true progress.
One of the solutions that should be considered by the Higher Education Department is to mandate all educational institutions to adopt a mental health policy that will inform students of the procedures, rules and avenues they can choose that will provide them with reasonable accommodation when they are suffering from a mental health crisis. Indeed, more structural changes will need to be made, but having a binding policy would be the appropriate first step forward.
Gender Based Violence and the Scourge of Misogyny
Young people, especially women and children, have faced severe forms of violence in their living, work and educational spaces. Only in recent years has this reality been making headlines in the country. Last year, President Ramaphosa and stakeholders met at a summit to discuss the way forward in dealing with gender-based violence.
Gender-based violence can be sexual, psychological, economic or structural, and most commonly involves a male figure abusing a woman or child. The statistics in South Africa are horrifying, leading to the country being dubbed the “Rape Capital of the World” a few years ago. These statistics also reflect to what extent this has affected young people: between 25% and 40% of women in South Africa have experienced sexual or other assault in their lifetime, and many of these women are of course part of the youth facing the myriad other problems outlined above.
The birthplace of gender-based violence is misogyny itself. This, in turn, is rooted in very patriarchal nature of our society. We are all raised in this society and taught hurtful social norms such as those described by toxic masculinity, e.g. male supremacy and male entitled to women’s bodies. These notions are very easy to directly link to the way men objectify and use women. The lack of awareness of consent and general respect for women’s rights and dignity are signs of misogyny blinding men from seeing their own immoral actions.
Discrimination and Ignorance
The current “young” generations, often referred to as “the born frees”, were expected to be without biases, stereotypes and prejudice towards difference. It is, however, overwhelmingly clear that racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism and religious intolerance have been carried over into the younger generations.
There has been a number of cases of white supremacy lurking in our schools, where students of colour have been mistreated for things such as hair, language and self-expression. In addition, white students who have been overtly racist to black students have been protected by school bodies without facing major consequences.
In South Africa, in general, there has been a move towards accepting the LGBTQ+ community. Unfortunately, despite progressive laws protecting the queer community, most of its members still face hostility and hate. In particular, black members of the LGBTQ+ community face the most violence and persecution. Many young queer individuals are living in fear of not being accepted by their family and local community.
A long journey and much work lie ahead to ready South Africa for the future — the youth of the country will have to overcome many barriers to individual and collective success. Reflecting on this past Youth Day, we have to keep the example of the Soweto students of 1976 in mind: we must relentlessly demand concrete steps be taken to ensure the success of every child, student and young professional, to ultimately move the country towards a bright future.