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Youth Day: Remembering and celebrating youth power

Youth Day commemorates the youth uprising of 16 June 1976, following a directive from the then Bantu Education Department that Afrikaans had to be used on an equal basis with English as a language of instruction in secondary schools.

Image: Octagon, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The introduction of Afrikaans alongside English as a medium of instruction is considered the immediate cause of the uprising, but literature shows that there are various factors behind the 1976 student unrest. These factors can certainly be traced back to the Bantu Education Act introduced by the apartheid government in 1953. The Act introduced a new Department of Bantu Education that was integrated into the Department of Native Affairs under Hendrik Verwoerd (at the time, Minister of Native Affairs, and later Prime Minister). The provisions of the Bantu Education Act and some policy statements made by the Bantu Education Department were directly responsible for the uprisings. Verwoerd, who engineered the Bantu Education Act, announced that "Natives (blacks) must be taught from an early age that equality with Europeans (whites) is not for them".

Unisa walks the talk

Youth Day is commemorated today in South Africa as a national holiday. The day honours all the young people who lost their lives in the struggle against apartheid and the Bantu Education Act. In light of the ideals that the youth of 1976 fought for, and as the access-to-education crisis intensifies in South Africa, Unisa has opened its doors to a third of all higher education students in the country as well as students from over 100 African countries. Unisa has had a positive impact on the lives of previously marginalised groups and has contributed significantly to the South African National Development Plan.

Unisa’s end goal has always been, and remains, to grow quality higher education as a public good.

Youth power

At the time of Verwoerd’s announcement that blacks must be taught from an early age that equality with Europeans is not for them, the apartheid government was spending far more on white education than on black education: R644 was spent annually for each white student, while only R42 was budgeted for each black school child.

While the youth of 1976 paved the way for our generation, until recently access to higher education has been (and still remains) a challenge to many young black people. The legacy of South Africa’s apartheid system is largely to blame as the education system has never fully recovered from the Bantu Education Act, which rendered the black population alienated from both the political system and the economy.

South African youth, however, have proved once again to have the power to fight for the right to access to education in the country. The #FeesMustFall protests which erupted in 2015 argued that education must not be treated as a commodity but as a right that young people, specifically, are entitled to enjoy. The movement must be applauded for raising awareness about the funding crisis in higher education in South Africa. Students in the country have since been able to enjoy many benefits won by the movement.

Lest we forget

While Youth Day is about commemorating the youth of 1976, I find it important for us as young people to remember that we have the power to be the change we want to see in our families and communities, and society at large. The #FeesMustFall movement is a fresh reminder of our determination and a perfect example that we are capable of fighting and winning the struggles we still face. While the class of 1976 and #FeesMustFall have fought a good fight, we can all agree that #ItIsNotYetUhuru.

To commemorate this day, may you embrace the struggle and ideals of the youth who fought for the freedom we enjoy today. Be inspired to seize every opportunity made available to you at Unisa and by our country.

Here’s to the youth of 1976. May we remember them, may our resolve match theirs and may we continue to amplify their brave voices. Amandla!

* By Tshimangadzo Mphaphuli, Senior Journalist, Department of Institutional Advancement

Publish date: 2021/06/15