As we mark 42 years of celebrating and remembering the heroic youth of 1976, many stories will reflect lessons on how best we carry legacies of 1976 to the youth of today.

During her primary school vacations, a young girl would find a job in order to earn some money. The more she took these casual jobs, the more the workers at Van Lane Textile factory, in the Port Elizabeth surrounds, would begin to trust her and point in her direction whenever they needed their issues to be addressed. As a result, at a very young age this young woman would soon become a worker leader eventually becoming a shop-steward, representing workers. 

Despite her love for learning, she sacrificed the rest of her schooling years in order to pursue the rights of workers. Eventually she would be elected to the executive of the Textile Workers Union in Port Elizabeth; working alongside the likes of Comrades Raymond Mhlaba, Vuyisile Mini, Oom Gov Mbeki and others. A founder member of the South African Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU), a precursor to COSATU, this young woman would work with the Congress alliance in order to resist the nascent apartheid laws of the Group Areas Act, Separate Development Act and the Bantu Education Act. 

In 1955, at the age of seventeen, the young woman would leave her home town of Port Elizabeth, travel to Johannesburg and there take up the position as a full-time organiser for the then Coloured People’s Congress. Sharing offices with the ANC, she would play an integral role in organising and preparing for the Congress of the People, held in Kliptown of that same year.

A year later, in 1956, at the tender age of eighteen, Sophie Williams de Bruyn, would be among the youngest of leaders of the thousands of women who marched to the Union Buildings to reject the ‘dom’ pass.

The story of the young aunty Sophie is appropriate for a number of reasons this Youth Month.

Having recently celebrated aunty Sophie’s 80th birthday, one may question the appropriateness of referring to an elder when talking about youth month. Yet there is so much that young people could learn from the young life and the youth days of aunty Sophie.

The first lesson is that young people must prioritise their education and training. Aunty Sophie grew up in a different era, where young people, especially Black young people, could not afford the luxury of attending school for many years. Often the stories of our Black grandparents are heard when we are told that they had to leave school during their primary years. The era they grew up forced them to go and seek work, often menial labour with that amount of education, in order to fend for their families. 

Yet in today’s democracy there should be no excuse why our children and young people do not attend school. ‘AfricaCheck’, for example, indicated that in 2014, just under half of those entering school in 2004, those in grade 2 as they suggest these statistics are more reliable, sat for the matric exams in 2014. They went further to point out, a fact that was confirmed by the ‘Social Surveys’, that the majority of drop-outs happen in the further education and training (FET) phases of grades 10 to 12. 

‘Social surveys’ goes further to suggest that this is the case because older children, at this age, are more inclined to experiment with risky behaviour such as substance abuse and sex. No doubt, socio-economic conditions also dictate, as was the case with aunty Sophie, that they have to go and find a job. Yet often these same socio-economic conditions would have affected their earlier schooling years as well. This is another reason why young people do not stay in this FET phase, suggests ‘Social Surveys’, their foundational years were not thorough and therefore they struggle in this phase.

It is for this reason that the minister of basic education, Comrade Angie Motshekga, pointed out in her recent budget vote that “…to improve the efficiency of the [basic education] system, we are also focusing on Grades 9 to 11, as repetition and drop-out rates are also high in these Grades.” At the same time, as the National Development Plan envisages, emphasis must be placed on early childhood development (ECD).

While it may well be important for our young people to take their education seriously, we must realise that we do not learn in a vacuum. We learn in order to compete and compliment a global economy. Our young people must learn not in order for them simply to get a job but to be in the position of creating jobs for others as well. It is therefore equally important that, as we enter the Fourth Industrial Revolution, emphasis be placed on the subjects of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. 

Unemployment is a global phenomenon and we are only able to beat it, if our young people become globally competitive. Young people today, unlike in the days of aunty Sophie, are no longer just competing against peers in another town or city in South Africa but they are literally competing against the young people, working, in China, India, Turkey, the Philippines, amongst other emerging economies.

We must therefore equip our young people with the relevant skills.

The second lesson that we could learn from aunty Sophie’s life was her willingness to serve. Aunty Sophie did not have much education nor was she paid for being a shop-steward but this did not stop her from serving her community and acquiring the necessary skills through that service. In fact, she acquired so many skills through this service that she eventually became a leader for the rest of her life.

We have many unemployed young people in South Africa but sadly many of them do not have the requisite skills to become employable. While we continue to commend our young people at our universities for taking up the clarion call for free higher education especially at universities, we must pay more attention to making FET colleges more attractive for our young people. As the research shows, drop-out rates are high in grades 10 to 12 and these young people should be immediately channeled to FET colleges. Those passing matric should be encouraged to attend FET colleges as not all those who pass matric can attend university. 

Much debate has centred around the experience requirements for jobs and while earning an income is important, our unemployed young people especially those with low experience and with no skills, must be encouraged to volunteer their services in their communities. As with aunty Sophie, skills and experience comes with availing oneself even if it is on a voluntary basis. No doubt, this could lead to exploitation but, as aunty Sophie showed, one can only fight exploitation if one has the necessary skills to do so.

There are many other lessons we can learn from aunty Sophie’s life including her willingness to take up the generational challenge of her time, her fight against racism and for non-racism as well as the activism in the emancipation of women. Yet aunty Sophie’s life, as a young woman already, as we have seen all at eighteen, exemplifies transcending race, class and gender. While she certainly suffered the injustices of the triple oppression, she determined her response to these oppressions. 

In 1976, forty-two years ago, when young people took up the fight against apartheid, Sophie de Bruyn turned thirty-eight. Having just said good-bye to her youth, she could identify with the demands of the young people of Soweto and those across the country. It was a demand for better education; an education that rejected discrimination on the grounds of race, class and gender. 

Yet like aunty Sophie, those young people knew that the best weapon they had to defeat the apartheid regime was not bricks, tyres or petrol bombs but rather a good education and selfless sacrifice for the good of their country and future generations.  

Faiez Jacobs is the Provincial Secretary of the ANC Western Cape & Muhammed Khalid Sayed is the Provincial Chairperson of the ANC Youth League in the Western Cape.

*Sources used in article: SA History Online

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