Youth Day is an annual national holiday in South Africa which commemorates the 1976 uprising by black learners against an unjust and inequitable apartheid education system. ‘Bantu education’ was an inferior education system meant to deny black people access to the kind of education that enabled one to attain their full potential as human beings. This system sought to undermine black learners, using education as a weapon of subjugation to keep them from achieving success for themselves and their families. The atrocities which unfolded on 16 June 1976 turned the world’s eye to apartheid South Africa’s lack of humanity as police opened fire on schoolchildren. Youth Day now serves as a reminder that young South Africans were at the forefront of our struggle for democracy and freedom.
Today we continue to live with the legacy of Bantu education, and it will take a concerted effort over the next few decades to undo its damage. This is an urgent task of transformation necessary to develop the full potential of all our youth in a complex and rapidly changing world. While progress has been made over the years, inequality and inequity have continued in post-apartheid South Africa. Under-resourced schools within our basic education system are once again a legacy of apartheid’s oppressive systems. It is also true that failures in resourcing and managing schools in the post-apartheid period have compounded and sustained these legacies. However, we are encouraged that so many students from these kinds of schools excel against the odds and #ChooseUP for its quality educational programmes, and go on to become success stories for themselves, their families and communities. But we need to ensure that no learners are left behind.
Youth Day provides us with an opportunity to address issues facing the youth today. It is my view that an education without digital skills or digital access is today the new Bantu education; a lack of access to digital skills now puts young people at risk of falling behind their peers. This deepens the divide between students who have access, and those who don’t. Faced with this challenge in our current context, the University of Pretoria decided we would not resume the academic term online during lockdown until we had addressed this inequality and lack of access by loaning laptops to students who had no access. Although there were some initial glitches, we mostly managed to roll out our deliveries on time.
The digital divide during the current COVID-19 pandemic has also exacerbated some of the structural problems within our education and economic systems. The creation of a new society that can withstand pandemics will require massive investment to address these divides and give our youth a future-proof education. To further help our students, we worked with mobile network operators to have the UP Connect platform made free of data costs. Under level 3 of the national COVID-19 lockdown, we’re also making provisions for some students who cannot access online learning at all to be given permission to return to campus. This is because in some rural areas there is no mobile network coverage, making it impossible for some students to learn online.
To this end, I’d like to acknowledge our donors, whose generosity and understanding of how detrimental a lack of access to knowledge can be have enabled us to get laptops for our students as we continue our high quality of teaching and learning online. These donors have invested in our youth to enable them to get the digital skills necessary in a technologically changing world, and have ensured that our students can continue their education on a more equitable footing.
For many young people in South Africa today, unemployment is a key concern. The average age on our continent is around 20 years old, which means that Africa has among the youngest median populations in the world. However, with this comes the worrying statistic that, in South Africa, more than 50% of youth are unemployed. It is worrying to consider what the further implications of this are in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.
As we reflect on Youth Month and its significance, I urge all our students to take advantage of the Ready for Work and Entrepreneurship programmes available to boost your skills for life beyond university. We are proud that these programmes, combined with our high quality of teaching and learning, have resulted in more than 90% of our students being employed or studying further within six months of graduating. These programmes are designed to give young people the skills, hope and the knowledge to be adaptable in an ever-changing world. The economic impact of this high employment and entrepreneurship rate among our students has a lasting legacy on families, and transforms lives throughout South Africa, Africa and the world as we play a meaningful role in changing our society.
COVID-19 has taught us all how to be tech-savvy and how to adapt to new challenges. As an institution, we need to continue to provide high-quality education and equip our students with the scarce skills our country needs. We must constantly re-examine our curricula to ensure our students receive relevant training to prepare them for an ever-changing work environment. The pandemic has also shown us the power of the internet, and how much we can do online and remotely. While you continue to work through your classes online, start thinking about what the lockdown has taught you about yourself, your skills and your hobbies, and how you can apply these skills for the benefit of society. Using your skills to help and uplift others is THE UP WAY.
Remember that the youth of 1976 contributed significantly toward bringing down the apartheid regime. More than 40 years later we must ask ourselves, as members of the UP community, what are we doing to make today (and every day) matter? Whatever we do must always be in service of ensuring that all our youth attain their full potential.
Professor Tawana Kupe
Vice-Chancellor and Principal