The world doesn’t expect much from you as a child growing up in the townships of South Africa today. The private sector is looking to you to become their waiters, cashiers and shop assistants. The government is looking at you to clean the streets, lay bricks on construction sites and if you are vocal enough, to lobby on behalf of their party during election periods. No one is looking at you and seeing the next CEO, a lawyer or doctor. As a girl, they already know you will fall pregnant by the time you are 20 and will drop out of school and a boy, you will become part of the reason the security industry and gated communities are blossoming. The best they can hope for you, is that you consider a career as an educator, after all, who will come back and teach in the dilapidated schools that you are a product of.
It is very sad that 21 years into “the new South Africa”, the black child remains the picture of what not to be in South Africa. When black children do well, it is a wonder and it makes news. What is often not said in the headlines is that these achievements are not only newsworthy because of the harsh circumstances the child might be from, but also because we still don’t think it is possible. Those who are from the same circumstances are often known to shy away from them and may even be creative with stories of their backgrounds, because telling your peers at an upstanding listed company that you were raised in a shack will lessen their opinion of you. Telling your white peers how you lived on your grandparent’s government pension for years but still made it into university to obtain a commercial degree, hence you are among them, is something seen to be shameful. Therefore, those with that or a similar story would rather keep it quiet than speak. This is the South Africa we live in.
Corporate SA, still a white-dominated place, has had to make the concession, “we will allow the blacks in, but only those who look good”. By “look good” we mean those whose parents were either wise enough or fortunate enough to be able to enrol them in private schools at the turn of the times, or the “former model C” schools. Those who look good are those with a twang, those who would rather be “Immaculate” than “Mapula”, those who played rugby and not soccer, those who would rather weave than have an Afro, those who will say they went to Wits and not Walter Sisulu University (former Transkei University). Those who look good are also those who will say proudly how they could never be caught dead in the township, despite growing up there and perhaps having their parents still living there. These same black people, those who look good, are the same who say “I made it, why can’t they. We all had the same opportunities”. But did we all have the same opportunities? Are the scales tipped equally or even fairly? Do black youth stand a chance of changing the face of poverty and circumstances of their families?
Corporate social responsibility initiatives are often budgeted to educate exceptional black students, because they show potential to succeed. But the same bursary funds will fund white students who are average? Should it not be the other way round? Are the standards higher for black kids, who already have to overcome more than the average white kid, yet their peers who they are fighting to join are sliding through? A friend said to me that drive is what often separates those who succeed from those who don’t. What he meant was that we make it, despite coming from the townships because we have a burning desire to change our own lives. Therefore, we will use the train, we will study by candle light, we will go to school and come back on an empty stomach and we will still get a degree from a university that enforces structural separation and inequality. Despite this, some of us are still not exceptional. I ask again, is it all about equality and fairness?
Youth month is fast approaching, and there will be many a statement about how we as the youth are the future and should take charge. We will also be encouraged to get an education, strive towards leadership and make the best of our lives. But I ask, with what resources? This note is for the young person who is sitting and believing that the world cares. The world actually doesn’t care. This is also to the young person who is making it, please look behind and pay attention and lend a helping hand. It might have been different for you, but you owe it to yourself and the others like you to do something. If we don’t have each other’s backs, guess what? We are on our own.