The 23rd of October 2015 will go down in history as a day of legendary and eternal significance. While the events of June 16 1976 (where schoolchildren were shot with live ammunition by the apartheid government for protesting against being taught in Afrikaans and for receiving sub-standard 'Bantu education') shook the country for the cruel and callous actions of the apartheid state, leaving a deep mark in the black psyche, today's events constitute a critical lesson for both the older generations and the generations still to come, that is,
If you want government to take action over the issues that concern society, society must march up to the doorsteps of power and demand it!
We should thank them. Some of the youth, barely out of school, gathered in the thousands to converge upon key government venues, most significantly parliament in Cape Town on the 21st and the Union Buildings in Pretoria on the 23rd. They shook up the country. They showed us, by example, how appallingly pallid our apathy has been, and how easily we could have shaken it off and brought about the changes we desired much earlier on in the transition to democracy.
The largely peaceful demonstrations by tertiary education students across the country were, in small part, accompanied by some violent acts. Some commentators, notably Angelo Fick, expressed surprise and disdain towards the pockets of violent behaviour that flared up at the Union Buildings as well as in other venues in the country where students had gathered. The basic argument was that they would be undermining their own struggle by engaging in undisciplined behaviour.
However, this lofty perspective fails to acknowledge a range of key realities about what has transpired, and what persists in the socio-political landscape of South Africa. Most of the youth of today grew up in an era of constitutional freedom that wasn't accompanied by adequate social and economic freedoms. Over the years, the ruling ANC government had become a bulky political party apparatus and bureaucracy that has scarcely been able to mobilize the ample resources of the country to the benefit of the majority of the citizenry, who expected that a post-Apartheid dispensation would attempt to reverse the vast injustices of Apartheid. In this plodding and corrupt new democratic dispensation, power became difficult to hold to account through the ballot. There were no viable political alternatives to the ANC, which has ruled by more than a 60 per cent majority for over two decades.
Under these conditions, the only viable way of holding power responsible was to take to the streets. Indeed, since 2004, major service delivery protests grew from double digits (around 14), to over 100 per year in 2008, growing to a peak of over 400 in 2013. This does not take into account smaller, peaceful protests, which according to civil society sources, vastly outnumber major events.
Communities learnt to take to the streets to demand that water services be adequately provided and administered. The same went for demands for proper sanitation, affordable electricity, transport, and an array of other basic needs and services. The youth of today learnt how to take action while growing up in this environment. They learnt that you needed to raise your voices, blockade roads, throw a few rocks at the police, dodge rubber bullets and buckshot, and disappear into the side-streets when the police force came rolling into your neighbourhood in their apartheid-era styled Nyalas.
Service delivery protests have been mounting steadily over the years. Anybody who paid a keen interest in them could see that they were a continuation of the Apartheid era protests that sought to "make the country ungovernable" as they ANC had called for. With scarce avenues to hold power accountable in the new democratic dispensation, poor and marginal communities and neighbourhoods all over the country had to resort to civil unrest in order to get the simple services that had been promised them in every election since 1994 by the ANC government. This learning ground has constituted the formative political territory in which their active political identities have taken shape.
The youth have aunts, uncles, fathers, mothers, grandparents and whole extended community and other networks, in addition to the new media and communications available to them, and through this they have learnt many key lessons about their history under apartheid, the failings of the post-apartheid dispensation, and how to take action in the political realm. In addition, they have the aforementioned territorial learning and experiences upon which to draw. They can organise themselves. They can articulate themselves. We need to join hands with them, let them lead us into a new future, and facilitate their desires as best we can.
They have tasted - not only the sweet treasure of taking political action fearlessly against the state - they have emerged victorious. They will continue to take action, as they have revived the mechanisms through which broad-based political action emerges from. They have earned our respect, and we had better start listening, and closely, lest the world move ahead of us and we are left with no other option but to climb into the dustbin of history and watch the world go by. Today I am not a teacher, but a learner, and I am looking forward to learning more!