JOHANNESBURG — South Africa’s high rate of unemployment has cast a pall over Youth Day, the holiday honoring the 45th anniversary of the Soweto student protests which played a key role in ending apartheid, the previous regime of racist, minority rule.
On June 16, 1976, thousands of Black students in Johannesburg’s Soweto township demonstrated against the imposition of the Dutch-based Afrikaans language in schools.
Police reacted with violence and more than 100 students were killed, including 13-year-old Hector Pieterson. Pictures of Pieterson’s lifeless body being carried by grieving fellow student Mbuyisa Makhubu spread across the world and highlighted the brutality of the white apartheid government against Black South Africans.
When South Africa achieved majority rule and Nelson Mandela was elected president in 1994, his government honored the student protests by making June 16 a public holiday, Youth Day.
“South Africa is an infinitely better place than it was in 1976. Young people have opportunities that were denied to their parents and grandparents,” said President Cyril Ramaphosa, addressing a virtual Youth Day event on Wednesday.
However, Ramaphosa acknowledged that 27 years after the end of apartheid, the future looks dim for many of the country’s young people.
“We know that our challenges today are many. Nearly 64% of young people in South Africa are unemployed. This is something no country can afford,” he said.
Ramaphosa pledged that his government will launch various initiatives to support youth-owned businesses, develop their skills in various sectors and create job opportunities.
Such programs are long overdue, according to Mothibedi Mohoje, a 35-year-old entrepreneur in Soweto who operates three internet cafes in the townships and employs at least six people.
“As a young person in South Africa, I really feel our government is letting us down. I think they should be supporting people like myself who are creating jobs in the townships,” he said.
“Many of us have never got jobs and we decided to start our own businesses, but we hardly get any support from the government,” said Mohoje.
He said some of the country’s unemployed youths turn to crime and others blame foreigners for taking jobs, resulting in deadly xenophobic violence.
On the anniversary of the student uprising that helped to end the country’s racist system, Mohoje said that South Africa’s youths need better educations and employment opportunities.
“On any random day, I can count 25 to 30 young people in my street who are just loitering around because they have nothing else to do,” he said.