“We are the future” – Youth Day from the perspective of two UCT student leaders

13 Jun 2019
“We are the future” – Youth Day from the perspective of two UCT student leaders

On the occasion of Youth Day 2019 (16 June), PEN SA has taken the opportunity to engage two student leaders from the University of Cape Town on what it means to be a young person in 2019, and the contemporary relevance of student protest in the continued struggle for equitable and transformed education.

PEN SA interns, Tasneem Allybokus and Daniela Friedman interviewed Rainbow UCT Chairperson, Robyn-Lee Tobias and Students for Law and Social Justice Chairperson, Simamkele Gosa.

What does being a youth mean to you?

Robyn: Being a youth represents the freedom to choose from many possibilities. We have the opportunities we have today from the hard work of those who came before us. With these opportunities, we need to take charge of our own futures and create a world that is inclusive and fair so that everyone has the same opportunities afforded to them.

We always hear elders say, “You are the future”, and that could not be truer.

Being a youth also means using your voice to speak out where you can, to use your platform if you have one because our voices, as young people, matter. We are the future.

Simamkele: This represents endless possibilities. It is us taking the baton from our parents and elders in an effort to bring about the change and transformation that we need as the youth in South Africa. It represents having those difficult and uncomfortable conversations in an effort not only to raise awareness but also attempt to change people’s mindset and understanding of the world around us. That may come in the form of writing or even everyday discussions with our peers.

It can also come in the form of protest action and establishing organisations to implement the change we seek. It is important to continue talking about our experiences and acting upon how we can make life better not only for us but for the younger generation as well.

What role have protests played in pushing change in Higher Education?

Robyn: The protests played a role in opening the eyes of those charged with governance over Higher Education; it created awareness. What is done after that awareness has been created is not in our hands, but the protests played a crucial role in catalysing the change we want to see in our education system.

Simamkele: Entering university in 2015 – the peak of protest action in our country – was a huge eye-opener. Protest action has played a very significant role in pushing change. Reflecting on the past few years, I can safely say that protest action has helped highlight the issues we face in Higher Education and forced stakeholders to take action to reduce the financial burden on students as well as improve the curriculum.

Although this is happening very slowly and only small changes have occurred, there has been some improvement. Students are very vocal about their needs and Financial Aid is attempting to provide more funding to a wider range of students. This has, however, proven to be a challenge and has not been executed well. There has been an improvement in Higher Education but it is so small that we barely notice it sometimes. Therefore, more needs to be done.

How do you see the response from Universities, Government and Students?

Robyn: From the students’ perspective, many want an instant change – they want the change to happen and they want it to happen now, not understanding that it takes time. Universities, being the middleman, often take the brunt, as they receive orders from the government whilst trying to meet demands from the students. It is a tricky balancing act and not something they have always done correctly. From government’s perspective, we have not really seen that much change, but things are steadily moving along. We need smart leaders who will take initiative, who will lead effectively and I hope we see that from our government soon.

Simamkele: Universities have not responded as well to the protests as students would have hoped. They have only implemented surface-level changes and some faculties at UCT have not changed at all, even though students have become very vocal about their challenges in these academic spaces.

The government has had plenty to say about protest action, from positive to negative remarks. There has, however, not been enough willingness to change from their side. Hopefully, after these elections, there will be some progress from the government but I am not confident about this. Students have clearly illustrated their challenges in Higher Education and I am hopeful that many of them will progress and ensure that substantial change occurs for those who are yet to enter Higher Education.

How has 16 June 1976 influenced current protest struggles for social change? 

Robyn: The protest on the 16th June 1976 was meant to be peaceful, but things took a turn for the worse when the police were called in to disperse the crowd as riots broke out. As a result, students were killed across the entire country.

Not much has changed since then, except that protestors seem to be less willing to take the ‘peaceful protest’ approach these days. Perhaps they feel that the more noise they make, the better the outcome will be… or more awareness will be raised.

One thing that I think will always remain true, is that the courage which was seen on the 16th June 1976 still very much remains today with those who protest for equality.

Simamkele: The 1976 movement was a huge inspiration to the many movements that have occurred over the past few years. From students calling for their language policies to be changed and quality education for all to the nationwide #FeesMustFall movement.

These created a sustained demand for transformation and forced South Africa and the world to take note of the challenges that have been crippling the youth. In a country with a high unemployment rate, where a majority of the population earn below the breadline, protest action was bound to happen again.

It proves that the youth can no longer stand for such oppression and inequality in our country. We have learned from those who protested against inequality in 1976 and we will continue to advocate for change until substantial change is established.

Is the way people protest in this country changing?

Robyn: With technology continually advancing, I think protests are definitely changing, because people have social media at their disposal and can create a greater awareness than ever before.

From my point of view, the way in which people protest has not changed, however. Although many do want to change the way these protests occur (i.e. non-aggressively), it is not the majority.

Simamkele: Yes, there have been some changes.

In 2015, most of my peers began to voice out their opinions and frustration through the protest movements in the streets and on campus. Many of them also started doing plenty of research on how we can implement all the changes we have called for.

There have been amazing ideas, some of which were submitted to government for consideration and some which have yet to come to light and are being spread across campuses.

Nonetheless, there are talks of change rumbling beneath the surface and many will be in the forefront of changing or creating policies, which will help students in their effort to receive an affordable (hopefully free) education in order to improve their lives and our country.

Featured image: Simamkele Gosa from Students for Law and Social Justice (left) and Robyn-Lee Tobias from Rainbow UCT (right).

Read part 2 here.