Yesterday we honoured Youth Day in South Africa, a day when we remember the hundreds of young people who were massacred in 1976 by the apartheid regime for their peaceful protests against a state education system that sought to forever keep them as economic slaves. It took the courage of children to bring the apartheid government to its knees. And young South Africans have continued to be at the forefront of national consciousness building, forcing us to re-examine entrenched ways of being through the Rhodes Must Fall movement and succeeding in toppling down an altar to a god of colonialism in a matter of weeks. Our young people are not a group to be taken lightly.

Yesterday many of us enjoyed music festivals and winter braais, kicked back our shoes and turned up our radios. But as we entertained friends and ignored incoming emails, there brewed a rumbling storm among South Africa’s young that threatens to make the “June 16’s” of tomorrow less than pleasant.

In 2012, the Transitions Foundation — an education-focused NGO I co-founded in 2011 — took a class of grade 10 learners to the Hector Pieterson Museum in Soweto. As we walked through the museum, looking at images that spoke to the valour of the youth of 1976, trying hard to impress on our group of “born-frees” that young people can indeed write history, we noticed a snickering among a group of our learners. Disappointed, we asked what it was that was so amusing, and they pointed to a picture on the wall of the learners of 1976, sitting four to a desk, packed in like sardines. I still didn’t get the joke. And then they explained that they still sat four to a desk in their school today. They were not moved by the images of the hardship — as far as they were concerned, that hardship continues today.

I suspect our learners were overstating how bad their classroom situation was, but it did nonetheless point to a painful cynicism that some of our young people harbour about the dream of a “future of endless possibilities”, which we have tried to sell them. That they, a group of 16-year-olds, from a no-fee school, in a disadvantaged community, can shape history, is a sermon that is beginning to fall on deaf ears. And who can blame them? Our country is becoming a difficult place for a young person to live in. We remain one of the world’s most unequal societies, this inequality has in fact widened post-apartheid, despite a rise in the country’s GDP. Our rich have gotten richer, while our poor have been allowed to fall into greater poverty. So much so that according to a documentary by Stefan Göttfried on the South African education system, the two richest people in South Africa have the same wealth as 50% of the population.

There is a vast literature supporting the notion that education is the most important instrument to reducing poverty, and Tata Mandela himself was quoted as saying that “education is the most powerful weapon that you can use to change the world”. But public education in South Africa is of very poor quality and South African learners routinely perform poorly on global assessments of education outcomes. This has been documented extensively in the literature and all are in agreement, including the country’s national government (in the national planning commission’s diagnostic report), that it is one of South Africa’s greatest threats. Poor quality education makes populations vulnerable to even greater poverty, and as described by Ferdi Botha in his study of education and poverty in South Africa, “serves to reproduce inter-generational poverty”. And all of this plays itself out on the background of extreme unemployment, which is as high as 50% in our most productive group ie our youth.

It should then be no surprise that the four young men charged with the murder of Emmanuel Sithole, the Mozambican national who was stabbed to death in April in the wave of xenophobia attacks against foreigners, were all in their 20s. Inequality breaks down social cohesion and encourages violent crime, and one might argue that the xenophobic violence we witnessed in our country is in part, a manifestation of that.

We need to hold the stakeholders who have the power to implement change accountable. We need to support disadvantaged schools in our communities and lobby the government to explore the contract school model ie state-funded, privately managed schools as proposed by the Centre of Development and Enterprise. If the structural inequalities of our fractured society, such as our failing public education system, are not addressed by all of us and we continue to deny our country’s children the prospect of a prosperous future, when the June 16s of tomorrow come of age, South Africa could be a frightening (and possibly hopeless) place to live in.


  • Kopano Matlwa Mabaso is a South African medical doctor, author and Rhodes Scholar. She is currently pursuing a DPhil in Population Health at the University of Oxford.


Kopano Matlwa Mabaso

Kopano Matlwa Mabaso is a South African medical doctor, author and Rhodes Scholar. She is currently pursuing a DPhil in Population Health at the University of Oxford.

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