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Youth Activism in a time of literacy inequality

 Smangele Mathebula

At the crux of great societal change lies the spirit of young people and their audacious will to make change happen. This Youth Day we pay homage to the young people of June 16 1976, who made their voices heard against the oppressive language policies of the apartheid government. One must consider the inequality and application of these policies, which can still be felt in our current education system and that plague the move towards effective change and progress. One thing is certain – young people are still at the centre of progressive change with various organisations such as Nal'ibali, help2read, FunDza, Activate and many others who focus on youth activism and its ability to drive meaningful change in communities throughout the country. 

The purpose of this reflection is for us to recognise that there's a long road ahead of us towards equality, particularly as we advocate for critical literacy development. We must ensure that we have a firm historical grasp on the issues at hand. Issues around language, particularly African languages; learning resources for all our schools, quality education, and safe environments for our learners; quality support and instruction for our teachers; curriculum development, holistic community support, critical financial support are but some of the issues that must be addressed to enable a literacy revolution. 
 
What can be learned from the young people of 1976 as we move forward are the following key motivating factors:
 
- Loss of life as a result of inferior education is unacceptable: Young voices are important in effecting critical change. As we work towards literacy development, child protection and safety is also at the root of this drive. This applies from early learning right up to tertiary education; respecting and listening to our young people needs to be part of the development of sustainable change.
 
- Language is critical to learning: If we fail to respond to the crisis around the need to learn for meaning, and the need for all our children to express themselves in their own languages, we will continue to fail. The same oppressive environment that encouraged the youth revolts will be further perpetuated.
 
- Organising ourselves is key to transformation: Through the action committee of the Soweto Students' Representative Council (SSRC) and many other key initiatives around the country, students mobilising within their communities is key to ensuring their voices are heard and that transformation occurs. 
 
- Collaboration: As we have learned from the example of the Youth of 1976, various stakeholders within the literacy space need to come together in their efforts. We have organisations in the social impact space like Partners for Possibility and others, whose work is based on the principle of collaboration. The literacy challenges we face need everyone’s involvement.
 
- Quality resources: This extends beyond what we use in the classroom. It's our human resources and our interaction with our environment that demands we build awareness in all who work in the literacy space, that quality needs to be at the core of our strategies.
 
- Support: We need to support our learners, schools, teachers, parents, and principals to encourage awareness of how all the different elements work together for sustainable change that is both behavioural and structural. Parents and youth alike need to feed in more critically to support this effort.
 
- Flexibility, innovation and creativity: Our approaches need to be flexible and responsive enough to impact our children’s learning environments. Innovation, creativity and play are great components that can infuse renewed drive for schools that put literacy at the centre of critical change.  
 
In closing, let us continue to take time to reflect on fruitful lessons that can be learned from our young people with both an historical and modern view. This will help us better relate the inequality to issues not only around race and class, which are highly important, but also to move towards education policies and practices that value each and every child, parent, teacher and school from different backgrounds, all over our country.
 
Smangele Mathebula, known as Madibookeng, is a literacy activist and currently works as a programme manager for help2read.