In two days’ time we commemorate the fateful events of June 16th 1976, when brave young men and women in Soweto and other parts of the country rose up against the iniquity of Bantu Education.
On that day and in the days that followed, many lost their lives. They were killed by a callous regime that had little regard for black lives and thought nothing of opening fire on unarmed, uniformed schoolchildren.
These events hardened international opinion against the apartheid regime and gave further impetus to the liberation struggle.
Young people have always been at the forefront of social protest, from the anti-authoritarian protests in Latin America in the late 1950s to the May 68 movement in France, to the protests across many parts of Africa in the late 1960s.
History faithfully records the contribution of the generation of 1976 to the international student movement and its stance against oppression and injustice in all its forms.
Since the early 1980s the All Africa Students Union has observed June 16th as African Students Day in tribute to the Soweto students. In 1991 the Organisation of African Unity adopted June 16th as the International Day of the African Child.
As such, this historic event that took place 45 years ago continues to be commemorated across our continent and many other parts of the world.
It is therefore disturbing that knowledge and awareness of the events of June 16th is diminishing among young South Africans. This is particularly so among the so-called Generation Z, or young people born between 1997 and 2015.
The 2019/2020 South African Social Attitudes Survey published by the Human Sciences Research Council found that close to 40% of Generation Z has not heard of the historical events of June 16th. A similar percentage has heard about it but knows very little or nothing about it.
Importantly, the survey also found that young people of this generation are nevertheless open to learning about key historical events and believe in their continued importance.
As the celebrated author Ngugi wa Thiong’o writes, memory is the site of consciousness. And consciousness is the driving force of change.
We need to do more as a country to ensure that the message of this event, of young people taking charge of their destiny and standing up against apartheid rule, is transmitted faithfully.
This is a collective responsibility of government, schools, tertiary institutions, parents, families, musicians, artists, and indeed all of society.
The generation that was born after apartheid ended inherited a country with a democratic Constitution and where fundamental freedoms are protected.
Due to the sacrifices of the 1976 generation, the opportunities young black men and women have today are both vastly different and greatly improved.
Keeping the story of June 16th alive is a reminder to today’s generation of the great sacrifices made to secure their freedom. But it is much more than that.
Youth Day is also a reminder of the immense power and agency that young people have to create a better future for themselves.
The struggles of young people in South Africa today are many. Young people have remained at the forefront of activism, whether in pursuit of free education or against social ills like gender-based violence.
Today the greatest struggle young people wage is against unemployment, something that has worsened under the COVID-19 pandemic.
Creating more opportunities for young people, and supporting young people to access these opportunities, is government’s foremost priority.
Everything that we do as a government contributes towards improving the lives of young people. Tackling youth unemployment requires accelerating economic growth, particularly in labour-intensive sectors, and building the capability of the state to fulfil its developmental role.
We are also driving this agenda through a series of targeted interventions. These include the Presidential Employment Stimulus, which has provided work opportunities and livelihoods support for many young people.
This week, on Youth Day, we will be launching a range of additional measures to create opportunities, enhance skills development, support young entrepreneurs and enable the full participation of young people in the economy.
This includes the establishment of a National Pathway Management Network, SA Youth, to make it easier for young people to view and access opportunities and receive active support to find pathways into the labour market.
These are among the priority actions of the Presidential Youth Employment Intervention, which was launched just weeks before we entered a national lockdown last year and which is now entering full implementation.
The Presidential Youth Employment Intervention was built on the understanding that to address the youth unemployment crisis requires innovative thinking and strong partnerships across society.
Its ultimate objective is to find models that work, whether in skills development or active labour market policies, and to scale these models rapidly to reach as many young people as possible.
Most importantly, it recognises that young people must be at the centre of any effort to boost youth employment. Young people are our greatest asset, and our greatest weapon in this fight.
As we pay tribute to the youth whose courageous activism won us our freedom, we also salute the resilience of every young person who is playing their part to build and develop this country.
They are the young people volunteering in our communities, building our country through the Presidential Employment Stimulus, running their own businesses and studying to better themselves.
They are the young people who are forging their own path and bringing their families along with them.
We also salute the young men and women who have not given up hope, who keep working to improve their lives.
Young people are doing their part; they need government, and indeed all of society, to do ours.
Our country is going through the most difficult of times, but we are working daily to expand the frontiers of hope.
We are seeing the green shoots of growth in our economy, and are confident this will translate to better opportunities for all. Our task now is to ensure that young people are ready and able to access these opportunities, and to create their own.
This Youth Day, let us continue to work together as a nation to nourish these shoots of growth in pursuit of our common, brighter future.
With best regards,