Lessons from the 1976 Soweto Uprisings

Challenging the Dominant Narrative about the Current Generation of Youth 

The 1976 Soweto Uprisings serve as a great example of the critical role young people have historically played in challenging the harsh and unjust conditions facing them and bringing about a democratic dispensation in South Africa. On 16 June 1976, young people across South Africa resolved to confront white domination, marking the end of submissiveness on the part of the black population of South Africa and the beginning of a new militancy in the struggle against apartheid. The current generation of young people in South Africa is typically described as lost, apathetic and passive among other things.

 It is crucial to develop an alternative narrative of young people in South Africa – one where despite the challenges of poverty, unemployment and crime youth grapple with daily, they remain actively engaged citizens. Over 20 years since the dawn of democracy South Africa still grapples with challenges systematic marginalisation and deprivation of the masses of our people. Years of apartheid’s overt and covert practices systematically and progressively produced a racially polarized society that was founded on deplorable inequality and ensured that the masses of our people were condemned to poverty.

Poor housing, inferior education, unfair and discriminatory labour practices, a biased judicial system and restrictions of movement, economic and political exclusion, racial and ethnic hostility, and spiritual repression adversely affected the black majority in South Africa. Steve Biko, Tsietsi Mashinini, Solomon Mahlangu and countless other young men and women all dedicated their youth to the revolutionary struggle against this draconian system of apartheid which sought to oppress and marginalise the masses of our people.

The dominant narrative about the current generation of youth in South Africa is that they are “the lost generation”, and that they are “the future”. There is a need to challenge and interrogate this characterization. I believe that it is grossly simplistic to characterize the current generation of South Africa’s youth as lost, apathetic and passive. In the same breath, it is problematic to describe the youth as the “future”.

With respect to the former characterization, I believe it is important to highlight that the current generation of young people in South Africa are actively contributing into the public realm. The emergence of youth-led social movements like #FeesMustFall and the #RhodesMustFall clearly indicate the important role young people continue to play in society. This disproves the notion that youth are generally passive and apathetic. Equally, it challenges the narrative that youth are “the future”.

Notwithstanding the challenges of unemployment, crime and poverty youth are in many respects, contributing positively towards building prosperous and thriving communities across South Africa. The narrative that youth are “the future” is problematic insofar as it seems to absolve the youth of their immediate responsibility of playing an active role in government, business and civil society now and not in the future.

 Perhaps there is a correlation between the tendency to describe the youth as lost and apathetic and their envisioned role in society. I wish to contend that the current narrative about youth in some way serves to perpetuate the oppression and marginalisation of the masses of our people. Youth constitute over 50% population in South Africa and as such ought to play a more influential role in decision-making structures within government, the private sector and civil society.

Karl Marx maintains that the ruling ideas are in every epoch the ideas of the ruling class. In this respect, one may be correct to assume that the dominant narrative about the current generation of youth in South Africa is in fact shaped by the ruling elite in this country. Interestingly, ruling elite in South Africa happens to be composed almost exclusively of old men; the predominantly old white male economic elite and the largely old black male political elite. The dominant narrative about youth in this country seems to suggest that there is a lack of interest on the part of the youth to play a meaningful role in the affairs of their communities and I argue that this is fundamentally flawed.

An important lesson that can be drawn from the 1976 Uprisings is that the youth in this respect played a leading role in waging battle against the exploitation and oppression of the masses of the people. The youth determined for themselves what issue needed to be addressed and how this issue should be addressed.  What the 1976 Uprisings should teach us as the current generation of youth is that we must assume leadership in addressing challenges facing us. Solutions to some of the most pressing challenges currently facing young people in South Africa essentially lie with the youth of this country. Youth must rise!!

Rammolotsi Sothoane is an International Relations graduate from the University of the Free State and a member of the ACTIVATE! Change Drivers network. He writes in his personal capacity.

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In a country where the majority of the population are below the age of 35, one cant help but wonder what are we doing with this potential? Youthfulness should be associated with energy and creativity. The youth voice should be prominent in media and shaping narratives around what it means to live in a free and democratic South Africa.