The peaceful youth protests of 16 June 1976 were instigated as a response to education policies but at its core it was a movement for human rights. Similar to the rebellion currently occurring in the United States, under the banner of Black Lives Matter, the youth of 1976 had limited self-determination over their lives because of institutionalised racism that prevented them from choosing their own destiny.
When we talk about human rights we consider the intersections between civil, political, economic, social and cultural liberties. We often expect institutions, organisations or leaders to uphold these rights but in truth, it is our individual and collective duty to endorse and embody these human rights in our daily lives.
Human rights are internalised into the values of society, where children are raised to uphold and reflect these rights in their relationships within and outside of the household. The philosophy of Ubuntu, for example, where caring for our neighbour is an act of individual and collective wellbeing, is something we teach our children through action. It is only by practicing these compassionate and respectful behaviours ourselves that the youth internalise and embrace these behaviours as their own – passing it down as institutional knowledge over the generations.
Looking at the state of the world we see movements ignite against leaders and organisations, challenging them to mobilise resources to protect the vulnerable after violations occur. However, what we see to a lesser extent is daily support for local activists and organisations who work tirelessly to safeguard the interests of their communities. By mobilising resources within our communities we ensure human rights are protected before injustices occur, and we drive interventions from the bottom-up. Honing in on specific cases of human rights violations prevents us from having the urgent discussions required for transformation.
In 1976, when the South African youth protested against the introduction of Afrikaans as the primary language of instruction, they weren’t just protesting because it would impact the quality of their education – as Afrikaans was a language that their teachers could barely speak. They were protesting a system that disregarded cultural diversity, removed free will, limited their potential for economic success, and reduced their lives to destitution and conformism through violence.
Self-determination is a pillar of human rights. The youth movements of our time, including Rhodes Must Fall, Am I Next and Black Lives Matter have shed light on the human rights violations that continue to plague our societies. At the same time, we must acknowledge that ensuring human rights has to be in collaboration with local activists and organisations who support local communities.
When we give the power to protect human rights to specific leaders and organisations we also give them the power to selectively choose who gets dignity, justice, freedom and peace. The youth of today have a responsibility to take the lessons learnt from the youth of 1976 and build an equal and dignified future for all. They are called to action, in outlining their vision for the future, and we are all called to support and nurture their vision to make it real.