Comparison between youth of '76 and today must be uncritical

Former Wits University SRC president and leader of the #FeesMustFall movement Mcebo Dlamini during a protest in 2016 by Wits students against the increase of fees. /Thulani Mbele
Former Wits University SRC president and leader of the #FeesMustFall movement Mcebo Dlamini during a protest in 2016 by Wits students against the increase of fees. /Thulani Mbele

Every year when June 16 comes around, there is a comparison made between the 1976 generation and the current youth population.

The narrative often seeks to place the one generation in competition with the other and the contemporary crop of young people don't seem to ever come out on top.

This comparison is unhelpful and counterproductive. It does not take into consideration historical and political context.

The 1976 generation protested in the context of a system of apartheid seen as illegitimate by the majority of the country's citizens.

Post-apartheid youth, on the other hand, are waging their struggles within a system ratified through elections that installed a black majority government.

These realities offer different possibilities for the activism and political actions by the two generations.

Are young people today willing to stand up and take action to change their circumstances and the developmental trajectory of their communities and the country? The answer is yes.

Being under 35 myself, I don't purport to speak for all young people. To understand contemporary youth and our struggles starts by understanding that youth is not a monolithic category.

Young people are different, separated by the social, economic and political disparities of broader society. They have different and sometimes competing interests depending on their identities and backgrounds and social status.

Like the 1976 generation, youth today recognise the dehumanising effect of colonialism and apartheid. The vestiges of apartheid are all around us and are clear to see in people's daily lived experiences.

Like the 1976 generation, young people do put their bodies on the line by leading protest movements. These are not just limited to the #RhodesMustFall (RMF) and #FeesMustFall (FMF) student activists who have become the poster child for post-apartheid youth struggle.

Even before, the student movement has been vibrant, with protests usually taking place at formerly black-only institutions and campuses. RMF and FMF just brought the politics of protest onto SA's campuses at previously whites-only institutions.

Also, it is young people that are on the frontline of most community protests over service delivery.

But unlike the youth of 1976, that's not their only option. Young people operating in a democratic dispensation don't wage their struggles solely by protest. They make use of the formal avenues to influence policies.

While the RMF and FMF activists were putting their bodies on the line, they were also applying their minds, knowledge and skills to providing research-backed policy proposals to support their call for free and decolonised education.

Young people are part of task teams, participate in consultations, give input on legislation and policies.

Others seek less-politicised approaches including being entrepreneurs, or forming nonprofit organisations that focus on particular social and economic issues. Others still opt to pursue the path of individual development and career progression. Given democracy has a pluralising effect on society, it is not realistic to expect a single rallying point that gets all young people behind the same objective.

While there are those who are beneficiaries of the privilege amassed by and in previous generations, there are those who inherited the poverty and disenfranchisement of their forebears.

Our constitutional democracy gives them an equal claim to justice and opportunity absent under colonialism and apartheid. That historical fact alone demands that we rethink an uncritical comparison of the 1976 and present-day youth.

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