Soweto 1976: What do today’s youth have to celebrate?

On Saturday 16 June, the South African Federation of Trade Unions will join millions of South African in honouring the memory of the young heroes and heroines who sacrificed their lives on this day in 1976 in Soweto.

Between 5,000 and 15,000 students walked out of their schools and assembled for a march to Orlando Stadium to protest against the Afrikaans Medium Decree, which declared that all black children should be taught equally in English and Afrikaans.

When the marchers refused to disperse, police fired tear gas and unleashed a police dog into the crowd. Then, without warning, they opened fire on the unarmed students. One of the first to be hit was 12-year-old Hector Pieterson, who was photographed being carried toward a nearby clinic by fellow student Mbuyisa Makhubo. Up to 200 others were killed by police bullets.

The protests rapidly spread throughout the country and set in motion a wave of revolt which escalated into the revolutionary upsurge which ultimately led to the democratic breakthrough of 1994. All workers will be forever in debt to the youth of 1976 and must never forget these martyrs of the liberation struggle.

The spirit of these youth lives on the the #Feesmustfall campaign, and SAFTU salutes the students who demonstrated the power of unity and won a partial victory when they forced a government to address their demands.

On 16 June 2018 however the youth of today’s South Africa have little else to celebrate. The political freedom which was achieved in 1994 has not led to economic freedom, and millions of young people still suffer from the same problems as those in 1976. They are still left with an economic crisis, huge levels of unemployment and poverty, a dysfunctional education system and communities that are terrorised by criminal gangs and drug lords.


The latest figures from StatisticsSA show that the unemployment rate among young people aged 15–34 in the first quarter of 2018, was 38,2%,  meaning that more than one in every three young people in the labour force had no job. Worse still, the report shows that “Some of these young people have become discouraged with the labour market and they are also not building on their skills base through education and training”.

As a result of the 10,3 million persons aged 15–24 years, 32,4% (approximately 3,3 million) were not involved in employment, education or training and were thus disengaged with the labour market and not playing any part in the economy.

Poverty and hunger

A study in 2016 found that about 3 969 000 (63%) of South African children live in poverty, with the Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal and Limpopo. This can affect their physical, cognitive and emotional development.

Despite the spread of free school meals, a recent report by Statistics SA claims that around a third of children in Gauteng and Free State are stunted as a result of chronic malnutrition, and that South Africa had one of the worst low birth-weight rates, with a 13.3% occurrence of live births of babies under 2.5kg.

Child labour

A shocking report by Statistics SA  on the State of Children aged between seven and 17 years old, revealed that 577 000 children in South Africa, some as young as seven, are being used for child labour. Children aren’t only used for labour but are also deprived of basic rights such as education and proper health; 2.2 million of South African children are also orphaned.

“The extent to which children were engaged in child labour increases with age”, says the report, with older children aged 16 and 17 years most vulnerable. It was also found that 44 000 girls aged 12 to 17 gave birth during the time the research was done, an indication that there is widespread sexual as well as labour abuse.


SAFTU welcomes the fact that Government was forced to announce the norms and standards following years of campaigning by the Equal Education Campaign. The challenge is to transform these victories into reality.

Government is also providing free education in 85% of the public schools. In these schools government provide free meals which make a big difference in particular for students coming from poor communities.

Of the 1 185 198 learners who were enrolled for Grade 1 in 2006 however, only 651 707 sat for the Matric exams in 2017, meaning that 533 491 learners – 41% – did not even reach Matric. This means that more than half a million young South Africans, in just this one year’s intake, are left with no academic qualifications at all.

In the current labour market these young people, plus those who failed Matric, have virtually no chance of getting anything but the most insecure, casual and underpaid employment, but are more likely to find no job at all.

The situation will not be much better for many of the 651 707 who did pass Matric. Thousands will struggle for jobs, despite skills shortages in many sectors, as many matriculants do not have the requisite skills in the areas of shortage.

One of the main reason is that government spending on basic education per learner over the past seven years declined by 8% in real terms.  Despite increasing total expenditure in money terms by the rate of inflation, about 7% a year, there was a big increase in the number of new learners, as a result of a sharp rise in the birth-rate between 2003 and 2005, which only came down slightly in 2008.

As a result of this increase, grade 1 enrollments showed a similar rise five years later, from 2008 onwards, as the extra children started school. This has meant that there were about 670,000 more pupils in 2016 than there were in 2010, leading to larger classes, fewer books and fewer teachers per child, but without an equivalent increase in income between 2010 and 2017, but on the contrary an 8% decline in income per learner!

The quality of schools in poor communities remains scandalous. The Department of Basic Education has confirmed that, after 24 years of democracy, there are still 3 532 pit toilets at schools across the country which put children’s lives at risk.

The Department estimates that it will cost about R7.8 billion to address the sanitation backlog in all schools, yet the budget for school infrastructure has been cut by R3.6 billion – which could have met nearly half this need.

While SAFTU fully backs the campaign for free, docolonised tertiary education for all, it will still exclude all those poor learners who have already been failed by the basic education system and have no, or not good enough matric passes.

Crime and drugs

Linked to the high number of young people who are neither employed nor studying is the scourge of drug addiction and crime. A SA National Youth Risk Behaviour Survey found that 15% of pupils admitted to using over-the-counter drugs to get high. The same study found that 11.5% of pupils had tried at least one drug, such as heroin, mandrax, sugars (a mix of residual cocaine and heroin) or tik.

The most dangerous is Nyaope, a cocktail of dagga, heroin, anti-retro-viral drugs, rat poison and acid, also known as Whoonga. It is a uniquely South African drug, highly addictive and destructive. Because it is so cheap, it is a favorite among school children, as 14 years old, who drop out of school to work for drug dealers just to get a free hit. Young girls work as prostitutes to pay for their drugs.

There have been reports of gangs robbing HIV/AIDS clinics in Soweto to obtain anti-retroviral drugs for making Nyaope, as well as addicts mugging HIV patients to obtain the anti-retro-viral RV drugs for themselves.

Drug addiction also leads to increasing violence, stealing and robbery among the youth. It is one of the reasons why so many youth are sucked into violent criminal gangs which are terrorising  poor communities, especially around Cape Town. Gang- and drug-related crime increased from 7 163 incidents in 2010 to 11 632 incidents in 2015 and many of the perpetrators are young.

Racialised inequality

What makes all these massive problems even worse, and an even bigger betrayal of the 1976 generation, is that they are not faced by all South Africans. The same mainly white elite which imposed the apartheid system in 1976, enjoy an even more privileged lifestyle than they did then, incomparably better than the overwhelmingly black majority.

The children who parents have plenty of money can enjoy top-class education and healthcare, easier access to tertiary education and higher-paid jobs with better benefits and projects for promotion.

Inequality is even wider than under apartheid in what is now the most unequal society on earth. This is not what the generation of 1976 died for!

At the heart of all this crisis is a monopoly capitalist system, which runs the economy for the benefit of the rich and powerful, based on the exploitation of the poor consumers and the workers who create the country’s wealth thorough their labour.

SAFTU is campaigning for a fundamental transformation of the economy into one that was envisaged by the Freedom Charter – a country in which “the national wealth of our country, the heritage of South Africans, shall be restored to the people; the mineral wealth beneath the soil, the Banks and monopoly industry shall be transferred to the ownership of the people as a whole; and all other industry and trade shall be controlled to assist the wellbeing of the people.”

That is the only way to start to transform our society and the best tribute to the Soweto martyrs.

To this end, the federation is calling on all formations of the working class to attend a Working-Class Summit on 21-22 July to unite civil society formations, including those representing the youth, employed and unemployed workers, those in the informal sector and in more secure work, the students and the landless, the homeless and those fighting against the water crisis and the scourge of violence against women and children, into a struggle for a truly free, democratic and equal society.

We call on all those interested in participating in a such conference to contact us.

Tel: +27 (11) 331 0124
Fax: +27 (11) 331 0176
Twitter: @SAFTU_Media
Facebook: SAFTU

Physical Address, 34 Eloff Street, Johannesburg 2001

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