Students open up about what #YouthDay2020 means to them

From Covid-19 to racism to socio-economic inequality, smart young people have a lot on their minds

14 June 2020 - 00:02 By Staff reporter
Rumbi Vambe.
Rumbi Vambe.
Image: Supplied

NEW REALITY, NEW RESPONSIBILITY: RUMBI VAMBE

Undergraduate at the University of Cape Town, 20 years old

The world has always been a difficult place, and as a 20-year-old, it feels like that now, more than ever. Similarly, to many young people around me, there's an overwhelming sense of personal responsibility, one that, to be honest, I'm still trying to come to terms with.

As the next rank, it looks like the responsibility to shape the post-pandemic world is ours. It's up to us to creatively problem-solve and to engineer an original and intelligent way forward.

But what are the most important things we need to consider when we do this? As someone with a pan-African identity, I have a few suggestions. To find the best way forward, I believe that as Africans we need to travel back in time and become deeply rooted in some of our oldest, most culturally intrinsic and important practices.

So, we turn to storytelling. In many African countries, storytelling has endured as one of our most charming talents, serving its slice as part of an aromatic heritage dating back thousands of years. In its original form, storytelling served as our way of deepening human connection, drawing on early traditions of moving in one tribe, revealing ideas, beliefs and truths that have endured globally, even to this day.

With this new reality comes new responsibility. It has never been more important for the stories around us and what we choose to do with them to serve the needs of the whole tribe, but understanding that, in this definitive moment, the needs of the tribe are much greater.

The marvel of this pandemic is that the veil has completely been ripped off. And the big lesson here is that for too long there have been too many stories and experiences that have been deliberately disparaged and ignored. Stories about HIV and Aids-positive health-care workers who are at greater risk when they do their job, narratives about families who can't even social-distance properly because of non-existing food security, and stories of women who are more susceptible to domestic violence because of national lockdowns.

We are living in a moment that has exposed systems, structures and problems for what they really are. It's now up to us to make responsible decisions with these observations and to choose a new legacy of honest choices.

So when we remember this moment, this is what we need to remember, and what I want to remember, because the stories of the people who suffered the most have to move with us into this new era, gifting us with perspective and holding us accountable in the ways that we choose to problem-solve. I'm trying to keep my ears and eyes close to the ground, so that when I and people like me begin to make our most important decisions, we remember the people and experiences at the centre of these narratives.

I want to use this moment to emerge as a more empathetic, responsible and conscientious citizen
Rumbi Vambe

But we can start doing that today. As a generation deeply clued in, defined and intimately in the habit of social media, all of us in our own spheres of influence are power brokers of public perception as well as public memory — in what we share, how we share it and in the many ways that we engage with information online.

We all need to begin by moving forward with a newfound sense of self-awareness, by deeply examining the purpose and consequence of our online presence and individual influence.

I want to use this moment to emerge as a more empathetic, responsible and conscientious citizen, using my platform and my access to illuminate these voices and bring them to the fore. Especially communities of people who have been dismissed, disrespected and disparaged for lifespans before this outbreak. Illuminating their experiences is the least we can do.

With storytelling, it's time that we champion in a new era. One that involves deeper human concern, a marriage between empathy and acumen. An era that calls for more intelligent and intuitive recognition and respect, but, above all, a world where we, including myself, are deliberate and authentic in how we choose to write ourselves and the stories of others into history, not only in SA, but in a world beyond its shores.

NEW DECADE, OLD PROBLEMS: FUNIWE MKELE

About to do her master's in public health, 23 years old

The year 2020 feels like the scene when Scar took over Pride Rock in The Lion King. From the threat of World War 3 in January to Wiley's mom being sent to Cyprus (in a Stormzy song) and the two rappers' ongoing feud, to Coco V (youth term for Covid-19) ruining our lives, it's been a long year and we are only halfway through it.

The start of a new decade brought with it the promise of renewal, but instead we're faced with old problems, and there seems to be no way of moving forward until we address them.

Funiwe Mkele.
Funiwe Mkele.
Image: Supplied

In terms of the overall management of Covid, the government started strong — a hard lockdown that left us getting to know the people with whom we live.

But what was more interesting to see was how our government was able to deal with the socioeconomic issues that our country has faced for years. It was swift to find housing for the homeless, provide water to communities that had gone without and find funds to ostensibly help people whose livelihoods were lost. A welcome change for a country whose hallmark is tedious queues at home affairs. The coronavirus added urgency to issues we hadn't addressed.

It's been like the therapist who makes you stare your issues in the face — uncomfortable. Corona has come rummaging through our past ills and present failings as if to say, “There seems to be a problem here.”

Too often in this country our government has gotten away with “transformation takes time” and they're not wrong. Corrections of past ills do take time, but as a public, we seem content to watch them stumble. That can no longer be the case.

Another plague has reared its head — institutionalised racism. Many people wonder what it is about the murder of George Floyd that sparked so many protests. Quite simply, it was the straw that broke the camel's back. It was more than people could bear. While we fight for our lives and fight to protect our communities, racism couldn't take a break for a global pandemic? But if you think about it, of course, it couldn't.

We're all connected ... What affected one person in faraway Wuhan affected the globe
Funiwe Mkele, student

Statistics have shown that in the US, there has been a disproportionately higher death rate in the black communities than among the white communities. Why? Racism. It's like the joke Dave Chappelle tells about HIV/Aids killing queer, black and poor people, “everyone that rich, white men hate”. Systems have been created and constructed to disadvantage certain communities and Covid-19 made the world stop and look at these problems.

The way I see it, we're all connected. If you believe that because you drive a Range Rover or have steady access to running water the troubles that plague those living in more difficult circumstances than yours won't touch you, remember Covid-19. The disease that touched 10 people who had travelled back home from Italy completely shut down our country. What affected one person in faraway Wuhan affected the globe.

So, is Covid upsetting me and my homegirls? Of course. But it has also provided the world with a golden opportunity to save ourselves from ourselves. Will we take it? I doubt it.

LOOKING BACK, LOOKING FORWARD: ALEXANDRA PHILLIPS

A second-year student at the University of Cape Town, 20 years old

A white girl, locked down in a suburban garden of privilege, tapping into the whole world through the tip of my finger — I have to ask, what does it mean to celebrate June 16, to me? The parallels that can be drawn between a wintry day in 1976 and today's holiday are less vague than one might like to imagine.

I've lived in the same home for 20 years. My neighbourhood, though free of the legal restrictions which ensured its all-white status since farms were built here, still shares its street names with faraway Anglo-Saxon gentry. It still remains largely white. Gargantuan, dystopian security cameras mark each end of my street, panopticon eyes in the name of neighbourhood safety.

Alexandra Phillips.
Alexandra Phillips.
Image: Supplied

I spend my days in lockdown reading Dangarembga, Sol Plaatje and John Rawls: stalwarts of an education in the humanities at SA's universities, which trudge on, faced with questions about service delivery to students at home.

Most of these students are not like me. Their at-home learning experience is hardly cushioned by the comforts of whiteness, class and a family unit's attitude towards the nationwide lockdown as, among other things, a good opportunity to experiment with Yotam Ottolenghi's complex cake recipes.

Learning from home feels a lot like matric finals. My bedroom desk, marred by countless hours spent committed to the matric curriculum's obsession with definition, is a no-go zone. Home cannot be separated from my school years.

From 2013 to 2018, I blissfully traversed my school's grounds, the setting of my teenage conflicts and coming-of-age ceremonies. Like many of SA's octogenarian brick and mortar schools, mine was proud. But looking back, my school's long history had a few things missing. The teachers, leadership and students have been overwhelmingly white since its conception. Diversity was celebrated on Heritage Day, an ode to multi-ethnicity. The celebrations dripped with a sense of having arrived in the rainbow nation.

I am no longer a matric. I am a student and I have to question the ways in which my school, and so many others, approached questions of race, ethnicity, sexual orientation and gender. Have we really arrived? Looking back, a hesitance characterised our responses to these questions — and I say “our” because institutions are not faceless, sentient beings; they are made up of the people in them. Too often, semantics, committees and policies took the place of real conversation and real change. Of course, the two are not mutually exclusive. But when the former is held up as evidence that we are somehow doing enough, something has to change.

So how do we move and grow from this point? My answer would be to start on June 16, a national holiday when youth and race are explicitly married. I say no more whitewashing of a day sparked by the imposition of the Afrikaans language. No more teaching its history as a testament to how far we have come. We have come some way, but when one research paper found that each year, fewer and fewer students are opting to sit the isiZulu final exam, a hint of irony seeps in.

But I am not void of hope. I think June 16 is more significant than ever, in a global moment when young people are asking questions about autonomy and identity. Writing as a 20-year-old white woman, following weeks of protest and pain across the globe, perhaps this Youth Day is not my day to pop the bubbly. On Youth Day in 2020, some introspection will do.

The best way to celebrate the Sowetan youth of 1976, and today's youth, navigating unprecedented times, is to ask ourselves: in 44 more years, will we be asking the same questions? In 44 more years, will hesitance mark our leadership? Or will we emerge changed, revitalised and ready to start sewing up centuries of open wounds?

OUR EYES ARE BEING OPENED: WESLEY STANDER

BSc engineering science in digital art. Currently reading for BSc honours in computer science, Wits University, 23 years old

Society has hit a speed-bump on the racetrack that is the 21st century, where speed is the pinnacle of achievement. Everyone wants faster cars, faster services, faster goods delivery and faster access to information. In a refreshing turn of events, our eyes are being opened to the lesser considered struggles that face communities.

Everywhere you look you see social justice warriors appearing. It's revealing systems in place all around the world that have deep systematic racism, bigotry and inequality. SA has had more than it's fair share of issues related to the former. In defence, I do believe that the way we came together to slow the spread of the pandemic is admirable and shows nationwide growth as we step towards a future that is considerate of all. The actions taken by the government give me hope that we may come out of this pandemic with the minimum amount of casualties in a country that, if precautions weren't taken, could be ravaged by this disease.

Wesley Stander.
Wesley Stander.
Image: Supplied

I'm seeing cases of social injustice being raised from my schooling years. I'm seeing issues with universal access to education as some of my classmates don't have access to the internet besides an intermittent data connection.

I had a classmate from first year who informed me that I'm in university because I can be but he is there because he has to be. His parents have spent all the money they could afford and he's expected to pay them back because they've invested in him. I was implicitly informed about what privilege is that day. People who aren't exposed to their privilege don't really consider it.

The disparity of information access has also distanced us when it comes to individual understanding of current events because each lens has its own bias. Now people have the opportunity to compare circumstances and see that other communities can suffer from vastly different issues. We've been given a chance to stand in solidarity and encourage sympathy in those who previously didn't consider the struggles of others.

Now people have the opportunity to compare circumstances and see that other communities can suffer from vastly different issues
Wesley Stander, student

I'm part of the gaming community in a consumer and producer relationship so I stay current with this community. Many announcements were due in the early parts of June but most game studios took a step back, postponing their announcements because they believe that more important things need to be said at this moment. Communities differ but we are all part of the human race.

I've learnt that we were created as dependent beings. We can't live without food, water or sleep. We also slowly die if we lack human interaction. For a community to thrive everyone needs to have access to these necessities. We become a self-defeating system if we push away other people because of fickle ideologies. We were created equal although unique, designed individually by God. His perfection in each individual person cannot be challenged by anyone.

I believe this period was planned much like everything else and will produce a world that's more accepting and more considerate than ever before and we'll have the kind of love for each other that ensures that we'd rather die than kill.

ENOUGH IS ENOUGH: ANATHI GODLO

BA Theatre and Performance at the University of Cape Town, 22 years old

I remember how special this day was at my high school, the Diocesan School for Girls (DSG) in Makhanda in the Eastern Cape. Our school day would be cut short so that we could all gather at St Andrews College rugby field to celebrate the lives of the students who brought significant change on this day in 1976.

Anathi Godlo.
Anathi Godlo.
Image: Supplied

The day I had always looked forward to changed in 2016, my matric year. DSG and St Andrews decided to take us back to the apartheid era by re-enacting segregation laws. I remember the school bell ringing, indicating our last lesson for the day. My friends and I excitedly walked out of our classes and made our way down to the rugby field. Nothing could have prepared us for what we would see. There were three segregated paths leading to where the Youth Day ceremony was taking place. We were met by three prefects dressed in what resembled the uniform worn by the apartheid police. These white boys stood at attention while three DSG prefects directed us to our respective pathways, marked “black only”, “white only” and “other”.

The joy on our faces turned into lumps in our throats. Unsure of how to feel about this blatant inconsideration, we complied and took our respective paths. I, being a black student, walked down the “black only” path — the longest walk of them all. It took us off campus before bringing us back again.

To make the experiment even more traumatising, the seating was also segregated — and it wouldn't be dehumanising enough if the black people weren't placed in the blazing hot sun while the white students were under the pavilion stand.

My heart broke into a million pieces when I saw the groundsmen and cleaning staff seated in front of a sign that read “black only”. Men and women who'd lived through apartheid and experienced segregation first-hand were now reliving it at a school that was already a breeding ground for racism. We had white students seated in the shade, white friends pointing at us and laughing because we were in the blazing sun. My friends and I couldn't sit down, we felt unbelievably humiliated, and so with the support of our drama teacher we got up and left. The headmistress and the deputy headmaster pleaded with us to return and at least listen to the message behind this ignorant and despicable experiment, which was that “colour does not define us”.

Two schools that have, for years, failed their black students, taking piercings and hairstyles more seriously than they take racism. Two schools where a student caught drinking is expelled faster than a white student calling a black student the k-word. Two schools that have made no conscious effort to immerse their students in constructive racial discourse and that have done nothing to hear the cries of their black students: these two schools, on this day, silenced the voices of their black students and left many of them traumatised.

Now when I think of Youth Day, I think of this incident.

We may not have lived through this era but we still suffer from the residue of apartheid's oppressive system. Students are saying ENOUGH IS ENOUGH. Schools are being called out for the racism that they've upheld for far too long. They are being forced to wake up and make changes. We, the black youth, hold so much power outside of these racist establishments and we are making it known.