Marginalised youth hit hard by pandemic

Students march from Church Square to the Union Buildings in Pretoria to demand free education and the release of students arrested during the FeesMustFall protests.
Students march from Church Square to the Union Buildings in Pretoria to demand free education and the release of students arrested during the FeesMustFall protests.

The month of June is significant in South Africa’s history as the events that unfolded in June 1976 shaped a new path on the road to its freedom from the shackles of apartheid.

On June 16 1976, schoolchildren in Soweto vented their fury and frustration in protests condemning the prejudice and bigotry of the education system that undermined the black population’s access to decent education.

Ironically, in 2020, few of South Africa’s youths are able to celebrate the changes set in motion 44 years ago because they are caught up in the manacles of Covid-19, which not only puts their lives at risk but sharply cramps all prospects of a brighter socioeconomic future and limits their opportunities.

Youth Day this year will be celebrated under the dark cloud of a pandemic that has already taken more than 1,000 deaths in South Africa and infected more than 52,000 of its people.  

Within South Africa, many young people, especially in rural areas and informal settlements, were already deprived of their rights in crucial facets of life such as access to decent healthcare and education, water and sanitation, food, shelter and safety. Now the Covid-19 pandemic has come to further darken the prospects of a better world, continent, nation and society that can accommodate their wishes and aspirations.

According to the International Labour Organisation and the AU, the coronavirus may cost between 20 million and 25 million jobs globally the formal and informal sectors. Clearly, the hardest hit are young people, who were already faced with immense unemployment challenges before this.

What does the future hold for them?

The buzzword “youth development” has been chanted since the dawn of democracy in South Africa  and yet their situation has done little but deteriorate at a rapid pace. The bright notion that tomorrow lies in their hands has little meaning in the context of their mired past and present.

The buzzword 'youth development' has been chanted since the dawn of democracy in SA  and yet their situation has done little but deteriorate at a rapid pace

As South Africa commemorates Youth Day on Tuesday, young people find themselves trapped in a web of questions filled with ever growing doubts. They have lost hope in their leaders, who have repeatedly jeopardised their future and continue to do so.

In fact, the plight of young people has been compounded by the ever-present influence and legacy of apartheid, with certain sections of society remaining segregated. Once South Africa was commended for formulating policies aimed at tackling its socioeconomic challenges and yet, when it comes to implementation, it continues to perform dismally.

Columnist Wayne Malinga
Columnist Wayne Malinga

In their dismay and frustration, youths have voiced their concerns through movements like #FeesMustFall, which exposed some of the deep-rooted challenges and inequities in the education sector. It it tragic that their efforts were tainted by the burning of libraries and infrastructure vandalism, derailing the progress their institutions were making in improving their learning experiences and campus life.

Then the coronavirus came along, catapulting learning institutions into e-learning. However, historically disadvantaged universities and under-resourced rural and township schools simply have no access to the digital platforms and other resources needed to implement such a technologically driven form of teaching and learning. Thus the long-existent divide between the “haves" and the "have nots” now combines with the new Covid-19 crisis to undermine all efforts to resolve the problems youth face. With economic activities disrupted, schools and higher learning institutions largely closed, the business world shaken and the entrepreneurial endeavours pursued by many people derailed, it will take huge amounts of time, effort and resources to get the youth back on some kind of positive track. One can hardly blame them for being on the brink of hopelessness and pessimism.

So in addition to what government and other actors can do, what can the youth do to rescue themselves? 

Hard as it is, they have to begin by avoiding alcohol and drug abuse, crime, violence, dropping out of school, early teenage pregnancies and HIV/Aids. This is the start of taking responsibility for their destinies and building a better future for themselves.

As we commemorate Youth Day, we need to keep the stark realities facing today’s young people  — so different from their peers of 44 years ago yet no less oppressive — at the front of our minds. If 1976 is to mean anything for the future of today’s youth, and those who sacrificed their lives on that day are not to die in vain, the problems assailing our young people must be tackled as a matter of extreme urgency.

Dr Wayne Malinga is an independent researcher, consultant and an alumnus of the University of Fort Hare.

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