AZAPO Youth Organization speaks about the struggles of black youth in South Africa

To Be Young, Gifted and Black

Veli Mbele, President of AZAPO Youth Organization

‘The only thing that has changed is the colour of those who now manage the system.’

Comrades and friends:

I bring you revolutionary greetings from the national executive committee of the Azanian Youth Organisation. I also wish to take this opportunity to salute the Mohlakeng branch, not just for organising this remembrance of our Movement’s founding father, Steve Bantu Biko, but also for choosing to have it on this day of special importance.

As you might be aware, the 25 September is the exact day on which Steve Biko was laid to rest in the Township of Ginsberg 33 years ago, after his cold-blooded murder in detention by the agents of the settler-colonial regime.

It is perhaps also worth mentioning that Biko’s funeral was attended by well over 20,000 people. And to confirm the extent to which the settler-colonial regime feared him – they still saw it necessary to set up road blocks, with the view to harass and stop those fellow Azanians who were travelling to his funeral. The white racist regime was still engaging in these cowardly actions even though they had just murdered Biko a few days before.

It is these and other Fascist tendencies of the settler-colonial regime that fortify the view that Biko became more of a threat to the settler-colonial state, in death than in life. This is perhaps understandable given the impact of his ideas on those who engineered and led the student uprising of Soweto in June 1976. Besides; it was Biko himself, who just before he was killed, said:  ‘You are either alive and proud or you are dead and when you are dead, you can’t care anyway because your method of death itself can be a politicising thing.’


Soweto uprising 1976

For the purpose of our discourse here today, I propose to focus more on the implications of Biko’s ideas in order for us black young people to reflect on what lessons we can draw from the life of someone who is as iconic as Biko. And most critically, what practical things we can do, as the AZAPO youth, to ensure that the teachings of Biko speak to the conditions of black young people today.

Because I am speaking to people who are as young as me, as a launch pad for my talk, I wish to use something that we as young people love and understand very well and that is music.

In her 1970 album called ‘Black Gold’, the legendary singer, pianist and activist, Nina Simone, released a classic tune called ‘To be Young, Gifted and Black’. This tune was actually an adaptation of an unfinished play by the same title by her friend, Lorraine Hansberry, who died in 1965 of pancreatic cancer. This was very profound song was Nina’s tribute to her dear friend:

‘To be young, gifted and black,
Oh what a lovely precious dream
To be young, gifted and black,
Open your heart to what I mean

‘In the whole world you know
There are billion boys and girls
Who are young, gifted and black,
And that’s a fact!

‘Young, gifted and black
we must begin to tell our young
there’s a world waiting for you
This is a quest that’s just begun’

She goes on to sing:

‘When you feel really low
Yeah, there’s a great truth you should know
When you’re young, gifted and black
Your soul’s intact

‘Young, gifted and black
How I long to know the truth
There are times when I look back
And I am haunted by my youth’

And she ends by saying:

‘Oh but my joy of today
Is that we can all be proud to say
To be young, gifted and black
Is where it’s at’

The lyrics in this song do not just carry with them a profound message about the beauty of our blackness and the value of being young, but in its own way, this song also encapsulates the essence of Biko’s message and the vision of Black Consciousness. This should perhaps not be too surprising because this song was recorded in the same year that Biko and others officially launched, the first Black Consciousness organisation in Azania, the South African Students Organisation or SASO, which Biko led as its first president.

What are the struggles of black young people today?

Drawing inspiration from the uplifting lyrics of Nina Simone’s song, my wish is for us, adherents of the philosophy of Black Consciousness, to take a moment and reflect on the black condition today, and in particular the condition of black young people.

First, I think it is crucial for us to understand that societies are organised along particular super systems, which prescribe the nature and character of all other sub systems within them, be they political, social or cultural. Also, societal systems are not a product of mysterious supernatural forces but are designed by humans and more specifically, by certain classes within society.

Therefore, not only do these systems determine the current and future structure of society, they also determine the current and future power relations in society, which inevitably determine the social and political temperament of society.

Equally critical though is the realisation by those who want to effect meaningful societal change that, those who design societal systems are not in the habit of disclosing their real motives for designing societal systems in a particular way – because if they do, it will defeat the very purpose for which the system was designed.

This is why it would be a violation of our code of discipline for AZAYO members not to engage in political study, discussion and, of course, reflective thinking. Failure to do this undermines our ability to dissect both simple and complex phenomena.

In this context therefore, we must re-open the debate about whether or not those African countries that were subjected to centuries of settler-colonialism can really claim to be liberated today?

To bring this closer to home in South Africa, we had settler-colonial system, which was premised on white racism and capitalism where all aspects of black life were under the control of a white settler minority. Then after a protracted and bloody liberation war, from the mid 1980s onwards, a surreptitious series of talks were held between representations of the African National Congress and the agents of the illegitimate Botha regime.

Following these clandestine activities, the monumental betrayal of our people was subsequently legitimised during the Kempton Park charade of the early 1990s, which later resulted in the ANC taking over the management of the colonial state from the Boers. And as expected, billions of rands were pumped into this imperialist project, with the sole intention of duping the unsuspecting black masses into accepting the fraudulent Kempton Park process as authentic liberation.

Did the mere act of transferring the management of the colonial state to the ANC fundamentally change the historical power relations between the colonised and coloniser in our country? Of course not.

So what has really changed in our country? Like we said in our talk delivered on September 12 in Atteridgeville, a few days back:

‘The only thing that has changed is the colour of those who now manage the system.’

Second, as evidence of the persistence of the system of white racism and capitalism, not only has our country recently earned the dubious distinction of being the most unequal society in the world but also – even under a government that they have elected – blacks continue to be at the bottom of the economic pit. This paradox is perhaps one of the clearest illustrations of the ANC’s capacity to meaningfully change the lives of blacks or lack thereof.

And as a result of this paradox, black young people, who are the majority of the South African population, have been the worst affected by the inability or unwillingness of the ANC to effect meaningful economic transformation in the lives of blacks (as a group, not as individuals).

Third, an impression has been planted in the minds of many young black people that the lack of progress in their personal lives is mainly as a result of their own personal inadequacies, which is not entirely true.

The failure of black young people, to achieve in all spheres of human endeavour, is a pre-determined outcome of the system that I alluded to earlier; and this is mainly because of the system’s sheer capacity to impair the progress of blacks, both as individuals and as a group.

And in this connection, the rapid and seamless social and economic progress of white young people is not so much a function of personal hard work or above average IQs, but just as in the case of black young people, it’s mainly a result of the pre-determined outcome of the system of white racism and capitalism.

Fourth, this should therefore enable us to better understand some of the following disturbing social indicators:

– Of the 164,000 prisoners in South Africa’s 243 correctional facilities, about 161,000 are black, male and under the age of 35.

– Even though, they are in the minority, there are still more white learners who take Mathematics and Science at school level than there are black learners. And as recently reported that even after obtaining their Grade 12 certificates, a huge number of black learners are unable to read, write and count properly.

– Even if you have a postgraduate qualification, as a black young person, it is still possible to struggle to find a decent a job, if not remain unemployed.

– Not only are the majority of those infected with the HIV virus black and young, but black young people are also synonymous with the disturbing phenomenon of child-headed households.

To articulate these depressing social indicators in this manner is not to take away the responsibility of black young people to take charge of their own lives, but it merely seeks to show the interconnection between the historical and structural societal factors and the personal choices that young people make today and in particular Black young people.

What can AZAYO members do to change all this?

While we understand the interdependence between problem analysis and problems resolution, we must however not find ourselves trapped in the petit bourgeois tendency of preoccupying ourselves with unproductive theoretic discussions and dedicate little time to seeking practical solutions to the challenges we face.

As the youth of AZAPO (Azanian People’s Organisation), we have a revolutionary duty to first educate ourselves about the history of our movement and country. And as required by the constitutions of AZAPO, AZAYO and AZASCO (Azanian Student Convention), we must get into the habit of consistently cultivating ourselves ideologically, intellectually and otherwise.

We must continue to conscientise black young people to realise that drugs, and in particular, alcohol are some of the tools that those who have designed the system, use to ensure that as part of the black community, black young people continue to dominate the negative social categories such as drug addicts and alcoholics.

Have any of you ever stopped to ask yourselves, why is it that, there are more taverns and sheebens where you live than there are schools and youth development centres? Kanti ninjani maComrade? Don’t you find this strange?

We must make black young people understand that the mass media is an integral part of the system and we must therefore not allow it to set the standards for beauty, success or intelligence for us.

Have you ever stopped to wonder why the mainstream media is always more willing to promote black young people who are involved in activities which do not positively contribute to the development of black young people, but the same media is very reluctant to give the same level prominence to other young black people who have achieved success through struggle, hard work and honesty?

I am sure you would agree that leadership is a crucial part of the project of social transformation and we must continue with our movement’s tradition of getting actively involved in resolving community problems. And where necessary, set up community based youth structures, which will assist in channelling the energy and talents of young people creatively and positively.

This, in my humble view, comrades, is currently, the biggest challenge facing the youth movement and I am afraid, we as youth leaders are failing black young people in this regard.

In closing, I think the single biggest challenge facing the black community today is that of producing and promoting positive role models. And in this regard, we are obliged to live our lives in such a way as to inspire our peers and in particular those younger than us, to live positively.

And while we must accept our own human frailties and fallibility, we must nevertheless never shy away from the challenge of inspiring others. Besides, we stand to gain as much as those we wish to influence.

If we as members of AZAYO, can commit ourselves to fulfilling all these tasks, both in theory and in practice, I have no doubt in my mind that in time, our generation will also be in a position to inspire the millions of other black young people out there to join us as we confidently sing Simone’s song:

‘In the whole world you know
There are a billion boys and girls
Who are young, gifted and black
And that’s a fact’

Thank you for your attention.

2010-10-21, Pambazuka News

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