June 18, 2013 12:28pm
June 16, 1976 young people in Soweto (a large urban area South-West of Johannesburg) began to protest against the Bantu Education Act. This “Education Act” was a law which legalized the segregation of black South Africans within the education system and commissioned the development of curriculums that suited “the nature and requirements of black people” . Ironically this act allowed for more black South Africans to be taught in the school system but choke-holded the chance of working in an industry where they were not in a subservient position to a white South African. One student wrote to The World newspaper: “Our parents are prepared to suffer under the white man’s rule. They have been living for years under these laws and they have become immune to them. But we strongly refuse to swallow an education that is designed to make us slaves in the country of our birth.” (quoted from Africanhistory.about.com). When the South African Department of Education passed an order that required all students to be taught in Afrikaans, a language considered to be that of the white oppressor, the heightened politicized climate amongst young people led to a strong student movement and students around the country, following the lead of those in Soweto and arranged a protest. The South African government under the Peter W. Botha administration, responded with violence, teargas and bullets.
On June 16th of every year, South Africa memoralize the fight, the sacrifice, the bravery, and the lives that were given up –by young people– to rid their country of the violent injustice of the Apartheid era. To be in South Africa, as a youth, child and community advocate, during this day is an absolute honour and the best reminder I can have to take back home that young people are powerful. Youth Day, anywhere should be about celebrating, remembering and honouring the work and voices of young people, past and present. Instead, particularly where Im from “youth”, “youth engagement” “youth-led” are no more than sexy terms danced with by political heads and dis-genuine agencies. If we celebrated our young people like we should, children would be as revered as elders, young people would have the chance to explore their passions, we would listen collectively to the unique challenges of our youth and work together to address them. Instead of criminalizing, tokenizing and leveraging young people for funding and political whoopas (cough: Rob Ford). Youth Day here, for the historical reasons i mentioned above is a national holiday and around the country actives are planned to celebrate young people.
I was invited by Ashley and his partner Bernadette to celebrate this historical day in a community called Blikkiesdorp (pronounced Black-ies-dorp), half an hour outside of the Cape Town Central Business District. Blikkiesdorp is Afrikaan for ‘tin can town’ it is formally called Symphony Way Temporary Relocation Area and is a government developed resettlement area for persons without housing or previously living in informal settlements. Remember when South Africa was preparing for the 2010 World Cup? And everyone was cheering (rightfully so) that Africa was in the spotlight and was receiving positive international attention? During that time the South African government was busy trying to figure out where it would hide families, who were considered eye sores and contrary to their international image, from the global community.
The government errected rows and rows of zinc houses, each about the size of a line-up of 2 small cars, they have one window, a concrete floor and a zinc constructed front door. External concrete bathrooms resembling permanent outhouses are shared between 4-6 homes. Street signs are none existent, with the only visible markers being black spray painted tags, reminance of the construction phases. Electricity is subsidized, and right above the community are towers and lines stringing like barbed wire between fence posts. There are no plants nor trees, the roads are sand and dust hits the air like heavy clouds. Land ownership is also non-existant because the land is owned by the airport who leased it to the government to build the settlement. In order to expand your home, you have to apply–and very few are granted permission. Because of the chosen material for construction, zinc, in the freezing South African winter these homes are like human sized coolers and in the summer they are hot boxes. Unemployment is the norm (80% unemployment rate) and access to healthy food and health care are huge issue. This resettlement area was supposed to be temporary (think Haitian tent city) lasting a maximum of 3 years. However the couple who welcomed me there had been Blikkiesdorp “temporary residents” for over 5 years and both have been on the national housing list for 25 years each. They informed me it would be another 3 years before 1,000 families have homes, leaving still yet some 24,000 families waiting.
I suppose the urgency has subsided now that the games have passed..
I wrote home to my mom and aunt saying I had never experienced such material poverty in my life because I genuinely hadn’t. This is material poverty and I now have a clearer understanding of what that means to me. Had I only been there to look superficially, this is all I would have seen, and I would have missed the point of celebrating Youth Day in Blikkiesdorp. It was hard for me to hear the stories Ashley and Bernadette shared with me, but together we talked about what it means to survive, what community leadership looked like, what it meant to live in Blikkiesdorp and the importance of sharing what I saw.
Earlier in the day there was a huge celebration in what looked like the main church tent. Young people competed in one of the best talent shows I’d ever seen (including an operatic duo, a dance hall princess, a ballroom dancing pair and a hip-hop group called Freedom Warriors). I was smiling so hard my face hurt. I don’t think I have been in a community where the children so obviously out number the adults, but here children were literally everywhere. What was also interesting was the gender gap amongst attendees. Few young men were in attendance and the majority of women there had children with them. I felt proud of participating in a crowd dancing, cheering and singing along with familiar songs all in the name of young people, which to me also represented resiliency. Ashley and Bernadette, the couple who invited me, themselves minded 6 young children, (only one of which was their own), sharing the responsibility of caring for them with a neighbour while also managing several businesses in addition to operating the only organization that provided food to Blikkiedorp children.
Bernadette and Ashely are incredible people and a powerful pair. Bernadette who studied abuse and addiction, organizes soup distribution and councils women while Ashley networks online with people abroad to get donations and make connections with big NGOs. They are a small organization, literally two people doing the work of a huge CBO. During the string of conversations we had, they instilled so many lessons in me. Ashley, a welder and engineer, talked to me about choosing to define himself as a community worker vs a leader; he talked to me about the need for innovation and creating businesses out of anything; we talked about the challenges facing youth, particularly the young men and the political structures that were seemingly build of red tape and bent on keeping injustice in place–regardless of who goes hungry.
The day was long, filled with so much but Im glad to have had the chance to meet Ashely and Bernadette, to experience Youth Day in South Africa and to have spent time in Blikkiesdorp. If ever there was a day that tested my assumptions, taught me about survival, resourcefulness, power (and the lack thereof) and strength of love and hope it was this day.
Some cuties in Blikkiesdorp