Youth Day Celebration

Every year on June 16, South Africa celebrates Youth Day. This particular holiday has a very interesting and special place in South Africa’s history. One of the first apartheid acts of the Nationalist Party was to segregate the populations, creating small slices of “homelands” where black South Africans were mandated to live unless they obtained a special work permit. This paved the way for the “Bantu” education system in 1953, which formalized the marginalization of black South Africans’ education. [Bantu is derived from an isiZulu word and was used by the apartheid government in reference to native
South Africans] Another policy made it so that Bantu schools were paid for only through tax revenue from black South Africans, which inherently underfunded the system due to apartheid’s heavy work restrictions on black South Africans. A later act banned black South Africans from attending white South African universities and set up segregated universities, and other policies mandated separate primary and secondary schools for colored and Indian children. The Bantu Education Department’s curriculum was intentionally inferior, based on H.F. Verwoerd’s philosophy that “natives [blacks] must be taught from an early age that equality with Europeans [whites] is not for them.” Verwoerd was one of the architects of apartheid.

Students and educators alike protested throughout the implementation of these racist policies. This movement gained momentum with the rise of the black consciousness and anti-apartheid movements across the nation, igniting hunger strikes and students stopping lessons in the late 1960s. Then, in 1975, the Bantu Education Department decreed that classes would use Afrikaans and English equally. On top of the inadequate education, shortage of teachers, crumbling infrastructure, and overfull classrooms that had been relegated to black South African youth, this mandate was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back—Afrikaans was strongly associated with the language of the oppressive apartheid government. One of the first areas to respond to this decree was Soweto, an informal settlement outside of Johannesburg of black South Africans.

Students in Soweto march to protest the inferior Bantu education system [Photo credit: South African
History Online]

The Action Committee of the Soweto Students Representative Council planned a march for June 16, 1976 in peaceful protest. After an initial standoff with the police, the students kept marching until they reached Orlando High School. A policeman threw a teargas canister, and then another officer shot into the crowd. In the resulting chaos, between 20 and 200 marchers were killed and many more injured. Protests erupted across the country, and one slain youth—Hector Pietersson—became a symbol of the injustice of the apartheid government that led to the June 16 uprising and slaughter. The apartheid government made some attempts at small reforms to the education system subsequently, but it was far too little. South Africa observes Youth Day annually on June 16 to commemorate not only those youth who peacefully protested for their right to an education, but also for the contributions of youth throughout South Africa’s history. [Source: South African History Online]

On Saturday, I was able to help out with a Youth Day event hosted by one of our partner organizations. One of the most serious challenges facing youth today in South Africa is HIV and AIDS. In my district, the leading cause of death from 2009 to 2014 for youth aged 15 to 24 was opportunistic infections resulting from HIV. [Source: District Health Barometer 2015-16] The Conquers Cup brings together groups of secondary school students from the area to compete in sports, community service, and awareness raising around HIV/AIDS. The day began with distributing condoms door-to-door to raise awareness and reduce the stigma around talking about HIV and AIDS. My district has one of the lowest rates of condom distribution, so this was a key intervention (although I unfortunately had to miss this part). Next, all of the students gathered at the local secondary school. There were several motivational speakers, including a few who are currently living with HIV.

A motivational speaker who came all the way from KwaZulu Natal

I was one of the judges for the competition, which was a first for me. First, each of the three groups put on a short parade to demonstrate team pride and show their knowledge of HIV. The next segment was presenting their community service activities; one group did an awareness raising session on STDs at a local clinic. The final segment was my favorite—each team put on some form of entertainment, which wasn’t judged. The first two teams did short plays on lebolla (similar to a dowry, constitutes a traditional wedding) and one on going to the sangoma (traditional healer). The winning team did a well- coordinated series of traditional songs and dances. We also had some local rappers and a dance team come to provide entertainment for everyone!

One of the teams presenting their information on STDs

Short play about going to see the sangoma

Winning team’s traditional dance

At the end, the principal announced the winners of each category and the overall team ranking. There were prizes for each of the categories, as well as a trophy for the winning team! It was an incredible day. As usual, the students were surprised to see a lekgoa (white/American person) at the event, and delighted to hear my attempts at speaking SeTswana. There were multiple impromptu dance parties, and we were able to pass out the all of the remaining condoms. It was a great way to commemorate my first Youth Day in South Africa!

Impromptu dance party!

Video reel of some highlights


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