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Ashley Kriel 25 years on: will SA youth rise up?

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Anton Frans funeral, 1989. Another Cape Flats hero.
THE other day I was asked in a radio interview whether South African youth, frustrated by lack of opportunity and the politics of party privilege, would ever rise up against authority like the generations of the 1970’s and 1980’s.

It was an interesting question, asked against the background of the 25th anniversary of the killing of the iconic Cape Flats anti-apartheid activist, Ashley Kriel, in 1987 by a security policeman.

There was no easy answer, I replied. Youth is a big question. 50% of the world’s population today is under 25, and in South Africa that figure is just over 40%. South Africa was little different to other African countries, where the highest unemployment statistics were between those of 20-35-years of age.

I was asked whether this would not lead to a festering sense of malcontent amongst young South Africans?

Again I replied that there was no simple answer. A recent study by the Gordon Institute of Business Science in June this year had revealed that 74% of Grade 11 and 12 learners felt our country was a good place to have a career.

Interestingly, the same figure in the sample (over 2,000) believed that business had more power than government, but that improvements in the country would come mostly through the state. The survey revealed great optimism amongst our youth and that they understood well the dynamics of South African society.

This applied equally to the generation of Ashley Kriel, I added. In spite of apartheid’s masters doing their best to dumb down social awareness, the youth of the 70’s and 80’s had not been fooled. They had been as overwhelmingly optimistic and focused about toppling PW Botha’s government, as the class of 2012 was about getting a job.

But for young South Africans today, things such as the State of Emergency are the fireside yarns of their grandparents – a pre-digital era of black-and-white pictures, long hair and Casspirs in smoky townships.

Our youth know that apartheid was bad, but as the struggle generation I think we have to accept that history has moved on. The young political lens of the 2000’s is not quite the same as ours. An IDASA study, for example, reveals that our youth are more driven by civil society and cause awareness, than that of a party.

Young South Africans of the 2000’s still face serious social issues, but they have changed shape. Indeed, for them the struggle does continue, and they have picked up the baton: but now the struggle is against AIDS, drug addiction and crime; it continues for jobs, for education and for security.

Of course, this does not diminish in any way the memory of people like Ashley Kriel. They gave their lives at a very turbulent time in our history. And if it hadn’t been for the courage and commitment of our Ashley Kriel’s, we would not have gone to the polls in 1994.

Youth Day on June 16 quite rightly celebrates the contribution of youth to the South African struggle. What we must not forget is that Africa’s most powerful military force of the day was confronted in the 1970’s and 1980’s by unarmed young people.

It was the youth who re-energised the political movements in exile after 1976 and 1985. And one can only wonder what great things could have happened to young leaders such as Steve Biko, Ahmed Timol and Mathew Goniwe, had they not been murdered by their interrogators.

Ashley Kriel was only 20 years old when he died at the hands of Warrant Officer Benzien in Athlone. A member of the military wing of the ANC, the Umkhonto we-Sizwe, he came from a poor family. It is no doubt that this informed his aspirations, as it did so many like him.

But back to the original question about today’s youth: I commented that if South African youth were to rise up against their elders, the dissidents would most likely come from the ranks of those most affected by the burning, unresolved issues of the day.

It would certainly not be the Malema’s, street-wise but already tainted by entitlement, and nor would it be the Mazibuko’s, well-meant but marked with privilege. No, it would be the Ashley Kriel’s, the Andries Tatane’s and the forgotten poor.

Of course, no-one is touting the idea that a youth uprising is imminent in this country. But I do think if the question has been asked, we must be attentive.

Policy “wars” on abstract nouns such as “poverty”, “crime”, “education” and “joblessness” are well-intended. But intention alone without meaningful engagement doesn’t enter you into university, get you a job, find you start-up funding for your small business or buy you a house.

Possessing precocious survival talents, the young under-class of South Africa know that we have been better at collecting taxes than spending them on the poor. They know that our much-vaunted transition has been unevenly successful, and that without skills, affirmative action is meaningless.

Young South Africans – such as Ashley Kriel who left the country for military training during the struggle – might have been motivated by a burning desire for social justice, but they also realised that to contend with the apartheid system, you had to have skills.

This was something realised on the chalky soil of Robben Island. Had struggle icons such as Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu and Ahmed Kathrada simply vegetated while in prison, instead of educating themselves, it is an open question whether we would have had the South Africa we have today.

The prospect of a youth revolution may not be on the horizon, but in post-apartheid South Africa it is imperative we give chance to the young – a chance based on merit and guided by wisdom, and not by political elitism.

I know that people who died for the cause, such as Ashley Kriel, would not want to have it any other way. Our adult fear of the seemingly impossible must not rob the optimistic young mind of the imminently possible.


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