Youth Month is observed annually to commemorate 16 June 1976, when a peaceful student protest against the apartheid regime’s Bantu Education policy turned violent, resulting in police shooting schoolchildren in Soweto.
The protest was essentially against an inferior education system that was meant to deny black people access to the kind of education that enabled students to achieve their full potential. Bantu education, as it was called, was designed with subjugation in mind: to exploit black people for their physical labour as domestic workers, miners or manual labourers rather than as skilled, technocratic professionals or intellectuals.
However, school learners saw through the racist economic and political intentions of this form of education and protested against them because they dreamt of a better future for themselves and their families within the context of the larger struggle against apartheid. The protest sparked a series of uprisings around South Africa. The world’s media sat up and took notice when the now famous picture taken by Sam Nzima of Mbuyisa Makhubu carrying a dying Hector Pieterson while his sister Antoinette Sithole runs alongside them was published; soon, the global tide against the apartheid regime began turning. Boycotts and sanctions against South Africa became common and it was not until the early 1990s when the country was allowed to return to the world stage again.
These hard-won battles should not be forgotten. In recent times, we have seen images from around the world – including in the US, where youths have been killed by law enforcement authorities, leading to movements like Black Lives Matter – of young people protesting against racially driven injustices. It seems it is young people who continue to bear the brunt and strive for freedom against oppression for themselves and their families, whether it is through slogans and placards or protests against police brutality. It is young people around the world who make each day matter by imagining a better future and working towards it.
Youth can play a vital role in the fight against COVID-19. I want to urge all our students to consider the harmful impact of fake news shared on WhatsApp and other social media platforms. Please use your surer grasp of science to assist your parents and grandparents, and encourage them to be vaccinated.
The context of our lives today might be different to 1976, but in no way does it diminish the contribution of young people in creating a new society. At the University of Pretoria, we understand this. We know that all 55 000 of our students are working hard to complete their programmes on time so that they can enter the world of work or start their own business in a way that transforms lives and communities.
We recently hosted Africa’s first Nobel Prize Dialogue, on the topic of the future of work, because we know how crucial this is for young people. As a legacy project, we are in the process of creating a Centre for the Future of Work, and will launch its research, curriculum transformation and development and policy advisory and advocacy activities soon. The centre will focus on a topical issue of our times: the emerging new world of work and the promise that comes with it. We live in a country with very high unemployment and youth unemployment in particular. This is why I am urging all our students and recent graduates to sign up for our free Ready for Work and Entrepreneurship programmes in order to access the skills you will need to succeed in life beyond university.
Just as youth took a stand for a better future in 1976, so too does our collective future lie in the hands of young people. To the youth: make use of the opportunities provided to you, and encourage others to do so too. THE UP WAY encourages us to make a difference every day and to make a positive impact in our communities.
It is a privilege to receive a tertiary education, but it is your right to receive a quality education that will enable you to be a critical thinker who is capable of responding to new situations and opportunities in the future in a creative, agile manner. We provide this type of education for you at UP with our hybrid online and in-class delivery modes as well as practical applications in multiple settings – including lab work, practical assignments, job shadowing and community engagement projects – which allow you to hone your skills and apply your knowledge.
As young people who are reimagining the world and future that you envision for yourself and your communities, I encourage you to engage with me in broadening my own horizons to embrace the causes and concerns of your generation. You can tag me on posts on social media or highlight these issues in class discussions. I believe that by engaging and working together, we can leave this world a better place than we found it.