Why don’t we just foget Youth Day? This question is provocative, yes! We seem to have learnt so little since the Soweto Uprising on 16 June 1976, where thousands of students were ambushed by the apartheid regime as they protested against being forced to learn in Afrikaans at school. In fact, today 16 June, just marks that moment in history instead of celebrating 45 years of progress since then.

Sam Nzima’s famous photograph of Hector Pieterson still dominates the news today. Do we see pictures of bright-eyed young children eagerly learning in stimulating and safe educational environments?

Do we see the majority of our youth as aspirant and energetic learners or as angry, struggling learners with learning gaps? Covid has, unfortunately, added to this learning backlog. The Department of Education in the Western Cape told me just last week that they are having to spend R336-million to remediate the learning gaps that developed during the global pandemic.

Do we see our school leavers well prepared for the world of work, or do we see them suffering due to skills gaps (on top of the play gaps and learning gaps that were allowed to develop due to lack of preschool education right at the beginning of their education career)?

Do we see most of our youth, including graduates, able to find jobs? The answer is, an emphatic no.

The system is broken

The youth unemployment rate, measuring job-seekers between 15 and 24 years old, rose to 62.1% in the first quarter of 2023 according to Statistics South Africa. It is not hard to see that the system is broken and no amount of support for grades 10 – 12 at the top-end is going to change this. For these young people, it is often too late to fix their shaky foundations, although we must still try.

Although there have been small pockets of progress, the leadership of our country should be held to account for not honouring our youth, for having no real will to empower them while on the road to enriching and elevating themselves. There is little vision for our youth beyond lip service.

Educators alone, can’t fix the system

Private education institutions, businesses, tertiary education institutions, NPOs and educators themselves are being left to fly that flag against increasing odds. At the same time, they are lambasted (often publicly) for not being inclusive enough, for not providing free education (or enough of it), for being elitist, and so the accusations continue. They cannot ‘fix’ this country by themselves although they are making a valiant effort. I know many educators and organisations who have a real heart for children and the future of this country and my heartfelt thanks go out to them for pushing on, regardless of the inconsistent support and often bad press that they receive.

There is every reason for us not to forget Youth Day. On this day, we should be focusing on what the government is doing or not doing to provide rich, stimulating and supportive learning environments for the next generation.

Ideas that could change the system

These include, but are not limited to:

  • Parent education – learning starts at home and doesn’t only happen between the four walls of a classroom or between the covers of books
  • Bringing back proper teacher training colleges
  • Pulling experienced teachers out of retirement to twin with younger teachers
  • Pulling retired principals out of retirement to coach current principals on school management and leadership
  • Increasing the teacher to learner ratio
  • Providing high-quality preschool education for all with teachers properly trained in early childhood development right from the start. Please read my blog on Play Poverty
  • Training up and employing more learning support and remedial teachers and therapists to deal with the growing number of children needing remediation for learning gaps in the foundation phase which over-burdened teachers cannot cope with and are not qualified to deal with
  • Inviting the world of volunteers to help in our schools as teachers aids – too many of our 25 000+ schools have 5 teachers for 500 children who could do with more manpower, the buildings get repainted and refreshed every election year but the teacher-learner ratio doesn’t change!
  • On that note, perhaps if we had foreign teacher aids working here, we might just have to improve basic aspects in our schools that are often parlous including water, sanitation, electricity, desks, chairs and even supplies of stationery and books, in order to avoid bad foreign press about the poor conditions many of our learners and educators find themselves in
  • Maintaining and improving infrastructure to attract investment and support business growth
  • Building a robust economy and broadening the tax base
  • Fighting corruption – apart from misappropriation of funds it is a terrible example to our youth.

Let’s stop blaming the past and rather change the future

Our power to change things lies not in looking back but at the past, but in what we do and the decisions we make in the present. A motorboat provides a great analogy. Looking back at the wake created behind the boat and blaming the wake (the past) for where we find ourselves now, is hardly helpful. It is disempowering, disrespectful and shows we have learnt nothing from the past. Our power lies in the motor on the boat right now. It needs fuel and it needs to be steered and guided to get where we want to go – to a healthy place that serves us all.

May this Youth Day remind our country’s leaders that they are giving (or not) the boat, that is our youth, both fuel and direction. And they are doing a spectacular job of putting our nation and every citizen within it – not just our youth, at enormous risk year on year. Let’s hope that one day, Youth Day will be a celebration of real progress for our youth, not just a commemoration of violence and inequality in the past (the Bantu Education Act and the Soweto Uprising).

The 16th of June for me is just a reminder that we are still cutting down our nation’s youth at the knees and shooting our nation’s future in the foot – you only have to look at our unemployment figures and crime statistics to know that this is true. As a victim of crime myself, I have been at the sharp end the wedge on this score.