From the 1976 Youth Uprising to #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall, the youth of South Africa has had a prominent voice in the advancing of South Africa’s young democracy. But more still needs to be done. By Aarti Bhana

How can the youth continue to fight for equal rights and resources for all, government accountability and a stronger democracy? That was the topic up for discussion at Accountability Lab South Africa’s second Conversation Lab, in partnership with the Danish Embassy in South Africa. Moderator Dr Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh, author and founder of SMWX media, led a panel of esteemed activists and academics. Their solutions were fascinating. 

“What counts as activism?” This was the question asked by the University of Cape Town’s Vice-Chancellor Professor Mamokgethi Phakang. She asked if activism always has to be a protest, and if it is not a protest then what does it look like? Or, put differently, what does activism become after protest? 

The question formed a major theme in the discussion, with panellists discussing how the youth alongside others should take the fight forward for greater change. 

In the age of cellphones, tablets, social media and hashtags, digital activism is becoming a major driver of change. However when the founding executive director of amandla.mobi, Koketso Moeti was asked about youth activism in the digital sphere, she explained that technology does indeed open a new set of possibilities for conducting and coordinating change. But she cautioned against “exceptionalising” technology, because it is not the only means to creating change. 

“Technology has always shifted and activists have found ways to use it… I think tools of digital technology are just that: another tool of many that can be used as part of the activism we do,” she said.  There are tools we can build with and tools that can destroy, but they are just that. Tools, she said.

Professor Phakang on the other hand encouraged a more personal form of activism. She said that perhaps it is time for youth to take their activism back into the rural areas and the townships – not as missionaries, but as participants. She said going back to the village during June and December holidays, living there and using your vantage point as an activist to bring about change is what is needed. She said we need to start working on mobilising from within. 

Reflecting on the #FeesMustFall movement that rocked the country five years ago, the former President of the Wits Student Representative Council at the time and a leader in the movement, Shaeera Kalla said that the struggle is still very much incomplete. She said even though some tangible changes came out of it, such as an end to outsourcing, access to state funds and the unity of students and workers alike, a lot still needs to be done. She said the structures of the commodified university system still remain intact and that #FeesMustFall was only the tip of the iceberg. Protest needs to transcend the moment in which it is happening, said Kalla. For her it’s about changing the norms and standards around the education system. 

“Education is still seen as a means of just getting a job and that is exactly what decolonisation was trying to challenge. That it’s not just about getting a job, but it’s about thinking critically about the society you find yourself in and changing that society for the better,” she said. 

Kalla added it is time to create a system where we are more agile at holding the government to account but to also come together with the skills that we have to deal with issues that are far-reaching. She encouraged the audience to find solutions that fundamentally change the precedent, the norm and expectation about how we think about our education and how we think about our community mobilisation. 

She said we need to work beyond the moments and understand that “we can’t just engage in expressions of solidarity without engaging in the absence of the practice of solidarity”. 

Both Professor Phakeng and Moeti agreed that more solidarity is needed to create change. Professor Phakeng highlighted that during the 2015 and 2016 #FeesMustFall protests, there was a sense of unity among students because they were all fighting for an issue or cause, but what we are seeing now is division among students due to party politics. She says instead there is a focus on competition rather than the issue. She was reminded of the unity present in the 2019 protests against gender-based violence which was sparked by the death of Uyinene Mrwetyana.

“Students came together for Uyinene, for GBV (gender based violence). We need more of that: a united voice for an issue, calling the government to account. Unity is missing,” she said. 

Moeti also pointed out that we need to create an ecosystem that enables change. She said we need to think about sustainable forms of activism and how we can supplement each other because no single individual can tackle everything alone. We need to ask “What can I do?” and step out of our comfort zones, she said. 

“Our comfort is coming at someone else’s expense, so we need to come together and do what needs to get done,” she said. 

Finally, to ignite the student voice, Professor Phakeng called attention to a need for radicalism that reimagines the university and its role in our constantly changing world: The radicalism that accepts activism as a part of university life. She said if students were voiceless and docile, our society would be much poorer, therefore activist voices need to be heard and we need to diversify the activism in our society. 

As Kalla aptly put: “There are sparks that will light the way. We see it in a much younger, intelligent global youth voice demanding accountability for the mess that the world is in. Because, they, like me, should understand that we are set to pay the price for this mess.”