I was thirteen when Hector Pieterson was murdered by the apartheid police on 16 June 1976. Ten years later, there was an insurrectionary climate in the country, and young people were right at the centre of the struggle against apartheid colonialism and coloniality. Almost five years ago, young people shook the country out of its sense of post-apartheid complacency and reminded us that it was not Uhuru yet. Through the Rhodes Must Fall and Fees Must Fall campaigns they reminded us that colonialism and apartheid were not left in our dark past and, therefore, reminded us of the unfinished business of the struggle against apartheid coloniality. Most of these young people were in our universities and other tertiary institutions. In the so-called liberal institutions, they have come to know epistemic racism, and the paternalistic colonial logic from which it flows, as intimate realities in their academic lives. In ‘bush’ campuses such as Fort Hare, the ravages of apartheid coloniality – the poor physical infrastructure and the paucity of academic resources – are a constant reminder that theirs are ‘academic’ institutions that were meant to turn colonial and apartheid visions into the dystopian reality of blackness as the complexion of want, destitution and general underdevelopment. This month, as we remember the young people of 1976, particularly those who paid with their blood and lives in protest against apartheid coloniality, oppression and epistemic racism, two things are worth raising – a statement and a question: First, we must never forget that, in their struggles, young people are walking in the footsteps of a young Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Anton Lembede, Albertina Sisulu, Robert Sobukwe, Steve Biko, Oliver Tambo and others. They must, therefore, learn from the struggles of their forefathers and foremothers. Second, we must ask the question – In our post-apartheid setting, what are the tasks, and what is the position or positionality of young people in our country?
The relationship between the older and younger generations in times of struggle, socio-political conflict and socio-economic strife has almost always been characterised by either the absence of an inter-generational conversation or the presence of a conflict-ridden inter-generational discourse. Almost always, society fails to blend the wisdom and accumulated knowledge of the older generation with the energy, innovation and knowledge of the young generation. The causes of this failure are manifold and, therefore, too many to enumerate in this article. For me, the primary cause lies in the fact that both generations tend to be deaf in one ear. To the extent that they can hear with the other, both generations tend to be too attached to what they already know. For the older generation, the past is their authority. The Golden Age was a reality in their own past or that of their ancestors. Sometimes, the lines between reality and mere nostalgia are blurred thus distorting the older generation’s perception and conception of current social, political and economic realities. Combined with the impulses of conservatism which accompany the process and reality of adulting, this makes many who are part of the older generation to develop an antipathy towards radical solutions. For their part, the young tend to either have very little respect for, or a very poor sense of history. This, in part, is why history faculties are dying in our tertiary institutions. This is both ironic and dangerous for a generation that has attached itself to decoloniality as a radical response to global and local colonialities.
A poor sense of history, ours and that of others, robs us – young and old – of the opportunity to access forms of knowledge and ways of knowing which, despite the fact that they are from the past, may teach us important lessons about the present and the future and, therefore, about how to construct social, political and economic responses with content that is appropriate for the present and the future. Furthermore, the young generation regards questions as more of an authority than the answers of the older generation. There are both advantages and disadvantages that come with this orientation. The advantage is that the young generation does not (and should not) accept as the Gospel truth everything that is true to the older generation, especially given the fact that, being old, seldom, these days, coincides with elderhood, wisdom and being a sage. Another advantage lies in the potential for both the young and the old to be constant seekers of new knowledge, ways of seeing and ways of being. With this comes the opportunity for them to free themselves from the known. This is not the same as forgetting or discarding the known. It is about the freedom to learn from another and others. Elements of what is known by the older generation may become part of the content of what is required to solve the problems of the 21st century and beyond. Also, knowing what is known by the older generation frees the younger generation from applying solutions from the past that are inappropriate in the present and future. In the end, an effective inter-generational conversation is contingent on many factors. For the purposes of my argument in this article two things are worth noting:
The Blackfoot, a Native American nation, tell us “to look to the mountain”. What do they mean? Imagine you were climbing a mountain. You are standing proudly at its summit. When you look back, you see the path you have travelled to get to the summit. This path is the past and represents, also, all the lessons, including the successes, failures and mistakes which helped you achieve your goal. As you take another look behind you, you see other paths that lead to the summit and you are struck by the realisation that you are not the first to summit. Furthermore, those who summitted before you did so by walking different paths but the different paths led them to where you are standing now. In front of you, as you look to the horizon, lies the future and, therefore, more mountains to climb and summit. You take another look behind you. You take another look at the path you have travelled to get the summit – the lessons you will need to summit more mountains in future. This is what the Blackfoot teach us. These are lessons from their ancestors. These are lessons from their indigenous knowledge.
Our own ancestors teach us that, “indlela ibuzwa kwabayaziyo”. Loosely translated this means that you must ask those who have travelled a path before you to know where you are going. I tend to interpret this saying in conjunction with another from our ancestors: “Ubudoda abukhulelwa”. Loosely translated, this means that the positive qualities that are associated with manhood can reside in a much younger person. This saying, as far as I am concerned, has an additional, albeit not popular meaning. The qualities that we have come to associate with manhood, such as bravery, wisdom and leadership, are human qualities that reside in human beings who are men, who are women, and who are young men and young women. Looking at these sayings together, I have come to two conclusions: a) Wisdom and knowledge reside in both the older generation and the young generation. There are things that are known to the older generation that are not known to the young generation, and there are things that are known to the young generation that are not known to the older generation. It is for this reason that an inclusive and mutually empowering conversation between the two generations is so critical. b) The wisdom of those who are men, the wisdom of those who are not men – those for whom being a man is not a point of reference and departure, those who are women, as well as, those who self-identify as neither men nor women, must constitute critical content in the conversations across the spectrum of age and gender.
What then are the tasks of the youth in post-apartheid South Africa.
As i intimated above, young people today, in their struggles, are walking in the footsteps of their forefathers and foremothers in their quest to radicalise the content of struggles against coloniality, neo-coloniality, global colonialities, racism, epistemic racism, as well as, race, gender and class inequality. Like the young Mandela, Tambo, Sisulu and others in the 1940s, who recognised the need to force the ANC to adopt a radical programme of action as a response to white minority minority rule, young people today are correct in their attempts to radicalise the content of current struggles against post-apartheid coloniality, patriarchy, poverty, unemployment and inequality. Black people who are young and black people who are women are ravaged the most by our social and economic order as well as the failures of the political class and our political system. The adoption of a radical vision for our future is, therefore, one of the key tasks of the youth. With regard to this task, an effective inter-generational conversation must not be confused with the need to appease the older generation when it succumbs to its own need for appeasement disguised as sophistry and compromise. Therefore, should the need arise, young people must perform the task of changing our society and the world with or without the approval of the older generation. The alternative is for the youth to compromise its radical vision for the future when it reaches its old age. If this happens, their children and grandchildren will do to them what, at some point, they might want to do to us – the older generation of today. In other words, the sun must never rise on a day when the youth of today is long dead and the next generation performs rituals of rage against their ancestors as they urinate on the graves of their forefathers and foremothers – the youth of today.
What other tasks flow out of this?
For me, love is the most revolutionary force in the world. The social, political and economic ways in which the preponderance of humanity and societies are organised betray a lack of love for others on the part of those whose political and economic interests have become a dominant reality whose race, class and gender relations are reproduced for their imposition on the human condition. This reality, to the extent that it manifests in our own country, is something young people, for the sake of their future, must fight and defeat. This, to me, constitutes the greatest love for self and others. This struggle is love both incarnate and personified.
Young people must defend, consolidate, extend, expand and deepen our democratic gains. They must bear in mind the fact that the authors and gatekeepers of a democratic order – including our constitutional order – tend to be defensive and, therefore, unresponsive and not receptive to any criticism of the gap between the formal and substantive dimensions of the order they helped bring into being. What young people must never forget is the fact that the struggle against apartheid coloniality was a struggle for freedom. Freedom is the end goal and democracy the means. We must, therefore, not treat the means (democracy) as the end (freedom) we fought for. Therefore, our task is to be constantly vigilant about making sure that ours is not only a democratic experience that is substantive in nature, but must also be aligned to our conception of freedom.
As young people we must engage in struggles that insulate society against techno-rationality and the abuse of technology by the powerful. As we celebrate the so-called Fourth Industrial Revolution, we must remember that more than a billion people in the world are not part of even the second industrial revolution. An obsession with techno-rationality may blind us to inequality and, therefore, the imperative to democratise technology and deploy it in ways that lead to the betterment of the human condition, especially for those who remain the wretched of the earth amongst whom are young citizens of our beloved country South Africa.