No sign of the better life promised

S June 16 ended with the usual political speeches which are in the main intended to deflect the trajectory of youth struggles, I was reminded of those days as a young “political” teacher when we interfaced with the black consciousness movement (BCM) that was in the ascendency at that time. The BCM was the protagonist behind the Soweto uprisings.

It now appears that the BCM and the role it played are being excluded from history.

What a misnomer “Youth Day” turned out to be. Those in authority see it as initiating the “building the rainbow nation” or promoting “social cohesion”.

This is in fact a betrayal of the reasons why those pupils sacrificed their lives. When the dust settled after June 1976 the pupils’ aims became clear – they were in the business of transforming society and not in a way as evolved after 1994.

What did the pupils, workers and parents strive for in ’76? A negotiated settlement? A settlement (compromise) implies those involved have both given some ground.

At present we are fast being catapulted into an election with its antics of false promises, character assassinations, a host of independents (job seekers) and those seeking upward mobility in the popularity stakes, together with the normal proliferation of political parties. Very serious matters remain that need the attention of the citizenry, for which many of the youth of ’76 sacrificed their lives.

A better life for all was promised at every election since 1994, but the Eastern Cape is fast becoming entrenched as the most poverty-stricken province in the country. In Port Elizabeth its largest industrial city, the official unemployment rate is at 36.8%, with the expanded unemployment rate at 42.5% (this includes the people who have given up looking for work).

A large percentage of the population lives as backyard dwellers and many more under slum conditions. Along the “old” PE-Uitenhage road close to the extension of the Despatch township of Khayamnandi, as along the road to Withoogte, an extension to KwaNobuhle, toilets are being built for the poor in their hundreds.

The degradation and squalor that these citizens live under is indescribable. After 22 years of “democracy” could decent houses not have been built for the poor?

Is the reason for the abject poverty across the world a result of the fact that roughly one fifth of the world’s population wallow in obscene wealth while the majority merely ekes out a living? Is there a greed and waste in the world that supports the current political system?

Diseases such as tuberculosis and diarrhoea, malnutrition, low birth weight and HIV/Aids are symptomatic of the areas of the poor. These areas are also characterised by children with stunted mental and physical growth.

The poverty is accompanied by violence such as exists in Glebelands, KwaZulu-Natal, the Cape Flats’ sprawling townships and the endemic violence as in Diepsloot and the northern areas of Port Elizabeth. What about the other points of conflict?

During Youth Month we are reminded that the fire that lit the powder keg that was to become Soweto ’76 was language. Today with 11 official languages nothing seems to have changed despite constitutional imperatives.

Are the changes mere tokenism? None of the other official languages are being nurtured so as to enable their implementation as mother tongue education.

Who are the real beneficiaries of the uprisings of ’76? Discrimination has been removed from the statute books, but discrimination is alive and well.

Equality has been enshrined in the constitution, but the divide between rich and poor is sharpening daily. We are supposed to be a democracy but the working class cannot change their lives through the parliamentary process.

What has to change and who is to bring about that change? How do we create an environment that can effect meaningful change?

Soweto ’76 and the recent student uprisings have given us a glimpse of what can be achieved through united action. Certainly it cannot be through the ballot box as structured at present – rural and urban workers, including the poor, must form bastions of united action to oppose the neo-liberal policies of government.

South Africa has to give birth to a new dispensation. The present activists are the midwives who have to oversee its delivery.

It’s time to get down to that job.

  • Hamilton Petersen, Uitenhage

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