Youth led organisations: Reminding us how powerful young people have been and can be in shaping our future

In a week when education is very much on South Africans’ minds, I am doing a quick tour of some of the civil society organisations working to facilitate young people’s access to education and employment.  One of the organisations I visited today, Miyela, works with young high school learners at Naledi High School.  Naledi was at the epicentre of the 1976 Soweto Uprisings that saw learners clash with the Apartheid government over the controversial Bantu Education system.  In 1976, learners at Naledi High School confronted security police who had been sent to arrest one of their classmates.  This violent confrontation set off a chain of events that led to the deaths of 600 young people, and was the impetus for the passing of the United Nations Security Council Resolution 392, in which the Security Council called Apartheid “a crime against the conscience and dignity of mankind and seriously disturbs international peace and security”.  Today, Naledi is one of the many schools in South Africa where learners, teachers and school managers are fighting an often losing battle against a compromised education system.  Almost 40 years after the Soweto Uprisings, it is sobering to consider how South Africa’s past is wreaking new havocs on the present of its young population.  Indeed, it has become an annual routine for us to – after the initial evening or so of immediate reaction – to mistrust the official pass rate (no matter how low or high) and to brace ourselves for the worst when the number is dissected and the analyses are published.

Amidst the bleak analyses, and against the backdrop of what happened at UJ this week, it has energised me to meet the Miyela team.  Miyela began as a space for young, engaged South Africans to have conversations about their vision of an equal, fair South Africa.  It grew into an NGO that, amongst many other things, delivers an intensive programme that provides academic support and mentorship to learners at Naledi High School.  Miyela is certainly not alone in the work they do.  We at DGMT have encountered many organisations providing similar support to in- and out-of-school youth.  The common thread running through their work is the desire to honour the legacy of the lives lost during the winter of 1976.  The work of Miyela, and the countless other youth-led organisations providing similar services against the backdrop of South Africa’s discursive and geographical sites of struggle, reminds us that these key spaces and moments changed us, they saw and shaped history and can become the focus of our recommitment to change the future.  By returning people’s attention to these spaces and moments we remind ourselves and the world about where we come from – and how powerful young people have been and can be changing our future while simultaneously reminding ourselves about how little has changed, really, and how much more needs to be done urgently.

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