June, as if one needed reminding, is the coldest month. It has also come to be associated with anything and everything to do with the youth, June 16 being Youth Day, a holiday, to commemorate the day in 1976 on which young people rose up against apartheid. The insurrection soon took on a life of its own, spreading throughout the country, including small towns and villages.
Figures of authority became fair game. Teachers and councillors, seen as functionaries of an illegitimate system, were forced to resign, and consumer boycotts ruthlessly enforced. The children had run out of patience. The event turned SA politics on its head. Parents lost the respect of their children. The genie has never gone back into the bottle.
Though the exiled ANC were quick to take credit for the uprising, they, like the authorities, were caught completely off guard.
Government responded with more brute force. Steve Biko died in detention a year later, on September 12 1977; and 19 organisations, including newspapers, were banned on Black Wednesday, October 19 1977. Scores of young people were in jail or exile. Government had lost its head.
The events of June 16 1976 and after galvanised opposition to government. But it also brought back memories of the role played by young people in an earlier epoch. The formation of the ANC Youth League (ANCYL) in the 1940s led to the emergence of leaders of the calibre of Anton Lembede, Walter Sisulu and Nelson Mandela who, with its 1949 programme of action, stiffened the back of an almost comatose ANC.
These events helped to romanticise the role of the youth in SA politics. We’ve almost come to accept them as outrageous, intolerant, no respecters of convention. The arrogance of youth, with a bit of showmanship. There’s no better showman than Julius Malema, recently re-elected as ANCYL leader. And with that, the fate of President Jacob Zuma could be sealed.
Malema’s rise to the top of the totem pole borders on the improbable. Born on March 3 1981, he was a month shy of nine years old when Mandela was freed in February 1990. He is part of what in local parlance is called the born-frees — young black people who have no concept or experience of apartheid oppression. Yet he’s quick to hold court about “the struggle” and the evils of apartheid. He has hardly seen a stone thrown in anger. People who’ve never seen or experienced the ugliness of the battlefield are often the first to agitate for war.
So how has Malema, lacking the basic tools of influence, come to hold society in his thrall? Could it be that he’s a crude representative of our children, born of an environment devoid of discipline, both in the home and at school? Also, society has become blasé about the arrogance of youth. It’s a stage they have to pass through. They’ll get over it. Zuma has said so in not so many words. Mandela, and even PW Botha, we’re told, went through such a phase in their lives, breaking up meetings and generally making life unpleasant for political foes. Both turned out all right in the end, we are assured.
But the other reason for the Malema phenomenon is the vacuum, even the cowardice, at the centre of power. One can’t imagine Malema living side by side with a Thabo Mbeki or a Mandela. That such a person can thrive is a sign of our times. Malema is a consequence, not the cause, of our dilemma.
But there’s also a huge army of disillusioned young people who’ve been left behind or who feel that the new democracy is not delivering fast enough. Malema’s demagoguery falls on fertile ground. Society has failed them. Malema is their only hope. Their penury is Malema’s prosperity.
We need to fix the education system so that it gives hope to young people. Otherwise the future could be bleak for all of us.