Lessons for Youth Day

It is fitting that we remember the seminal moments in our lives – especially our country’s. On Thursday, we commemorated the Student Revolt of 1976 – a pivotal moment that galvanised the revolution. Less than 20 years later, with a couple of states of emergency in between, we all watched in awe as Nelson Mandela become the first ever black president of this country.

In three weeks’ time we will mark the first anniversary of another inflection point for this country; perhaps the single most devastating spate of public violence ever seen in our history, the scope and scale of which had never been seen before but could well be eclipsed in our near future.

It will be interesting to see if there will be any speeches, any formal commemoration but probably not, it’s too soon – even a year afterwards – especially for the people of KZN who have been enduring a particular virulent trifecta of COVID,  corruption and conflict; a modern revisiting of the 10 plagues that brought Egypt to its knees.

It’s a fascinating counterpoint to another inflection point in another country, geographically far away yet very similar in many respects to our own. This week, public hearings in Washington deliberated on whether to indict Donald Trump for his incitement of the January 6 invasion of Congress last year by right wing Americans fed on a steady diet of misinformation, fear and hate – and the egregious hubris of a single man.

It’s taken them 18 months and for many Americans that’s far too long – even though the first convictions have been handed down and some of the most obvious ringleaders have begun serving jail sentences. Here in South Africa, no one has been tried. Not even the former private school boy filmed brazenly walking out of Woollies with groceries he’d looted to put into the boot of his Mercedes.

There has been plenty of smoke and mirrors, but those in charge of actually doing something about it have, in typical South African style, merely lurched from one crisis to another re-treading the same vacuous phrases but finding time to step out at celebrity functions. 

As for the ringleaders, they’ve still got their cell phones and they’re still tweeting – this time about a president and millions of dollars in his lounge which he definitely didn’t get for selling his birth right – and ours – to a family of grifters, unlike their dad.

In 1976, an oppressive government learnt that it could not suppress the youth, even if they were young and unarmed. It was a lesson that good would ultimately prevail. Two generations on we don’t have that guarantee anymore: the battle lines are blurred. 

Opinion has become news. Fake news has become truth. The tenderpreneurs, the anti-vaxxers and the flat earthers are now the oppressed, a properly elected government is the enemy and the damage to property, infrastructure and our national psyche from last year incalculable – and that’s just in America.

Here at home, we’re trashing the dream of the Young Lions of 76. And we manage to plumb new depths with every June 16 that rolls around.

Originally published in the Saturday Star on 18 June 2022.