The government has failed the youth of SA in word and deed
Helen Zille, Leader of the Democratic Alliance
16 June 2012
This is an extract of the speech delivered by Helen Zille at the DA Youth Day event in Soweto.
It is my privilege to be here in Soweto today to commemorate the bravery displayed on that cold winter’s day, June 16 1976. Now that turning point in our troubled history seems so long ago. Yet the memory of the courage of those students on that fateful day remains with us still.
Someone once said that ‘each crisis brings its word and deed’. The name Hector Pietersen symbolises how hope overcame despair, even in the worst of times. We feel like we knew him because Hector represents the courage we hope we will have when it is required of us. As we reflect upon the example of this young man, we find ourselves asking: how do we take that legacy forward?
As I look back on that fateful day – when I was a young journalist starting out at the Rand Daily Mail – there was no reassuring feeling that everything was going to turn out all right. Yet few of us knew how dark our future would still get.
In fact, apartheid had another 18 ghastly more years to run. Countless more young corpses, countless more lives destroyed, countless more inconsolable parents, lay in the future. If we had foreseen the future, we might not have found the strength to continue. When we cadet journalists wrote our news reports on typewriters – in those days we used ribbons and ink instead of Apple macs and smartphones – a sense of justice was our only certainty and companion.
The point I make is that the present – never mind tomorrow – is not assured. Optimism without action is foolish. Democracy’s work is never done. Both have to be fought for every day by every person.
And remember this: doing the right thing does not necessarily guarantee a return. Life, in fact, is rarely reciprocal or fair. You have to do the right thing simply because it is the right thing. The same applies to those who govern us: to respond to each crisis in word and deed, in a way that you believe to be right.
We again this week saw a President who fails to speak out against hate crime. South Africa witnessed the gruesome beheading of a man by two others for simply being gay. The President remains silent, as hatred and prejudice stalk the land. The silence of those who lead is as reprehensible as those who do wrong. Where is the outrage?
We have a President who simply seems unable to understand the lives others lead. Empathy for the other, we know, is the beginning of the sincerest kind of reconciliation. And, of course, sincerity is subject to proof. Our sincerity is judged by what we do as much as by what we say.
To lead, a leader must be able to feel people’s pain so that they can invest their own pain, courage and love. Mr Zuma seems unable, or too preoccupied, to do either. Our nation’s pain includes over 2 million incidents of contact and violent crime every year. Mr Zuma, like his government, seems tired and weary after 18 long years in executive office.
We see how this ‘out of touch-ness’ is playing out in the biggest crisis of our time. The government of the day has failed to respond to the crisis of youth unemployment in both word and deed. Every meeting with a young person who is unemployed is heartbreaking. I have just been talking to young people who are jobless here in Soweto.
The reason I carefully use the words ‘young person who is unemployed’ is because I am concerned that when you have nearly half of the under 25 population without jobs, we run the risk of stigmatising millions of young people and creating new stereotypes. We need to watch our words and thoughts, by ascribing dignity to our fellow citizens who face this lonely personal tragedy. This banner, which we have unveiled today, makes clear for all to see the human face of the unemployment crisis. A person should never be reduced to a statistic.
Like in that bleak winter of 1976, there is something else taking place that is hard to measure. Unemployment contributes to the breakdown that accompanies a loss of hope: breakdown of individual lives, breakdown of families, and the breakdown of communities. These can lead to a life of crime, and a lack of care about one’s future well-being.
That is why it is so encouraging to see that young South Africans are made of fine stuff. According to the Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS) this week, three in four believe South Africa is a good place to have a good career. This is despite deteriorating economic conditions around the world.
Do you know what was really exciting about this survey? It conveys the hope of the “born free” generation: the new generation who were born since 1994. The respondents were drawn from a range of township, inner city, former Model C and private schools. Where ever they came from, all learners believed in a home called South Africa. We dare not let them down.
South Africa seems to be moving to the final outcome of the youth wage subsidy saga, and it has opened up a much larger debate about how we are governed. It also had laid bare two different approaches to how the country must resolve unemployment.
There is one thing I notice when I hear COSATU’s arguments against the youth wage subsidy. They never attempt to put themselves in the shoes of an unemployed young person. There is no mention in a single COSATU statement about the sense of disengagement that goes with the feeling that one has nothing left to lose and little for which to hope.
COSATU is holding South Africa back. It is wrong. It is irresponsible. It will have tragic consequences.
We have carefully considered and weighed the benefits and drawbacks for the youth wage subsidy. I have yet to find proof that the youth wage subsidy would put other workers out on the street. Nor have we exaggerated the subsidy’s importance. It is but one intervention to benefit hundreds of thousands of young people and employers.
We need to fix our broken education system to fix our broken country, and this work may not, in honesty, be complete in my generation’s lifetime. It is the work of successive generations. It is the story of progress.
The difference in the quality of South African high schools contributes to the uncertainty that employers face when asking if a prospective employee will be productive.
The Soweto uprising of 1976 was ignited by an unjust and unequal education system. It was true then, and it is true now, some trees will grow taller than others. It was true then, and it is true now, every child deserves a fair start. It is no secret that I am passionate about education and it is a priority for me because SA’s future depends on it.
I often talk about teachers' responsibility, as nation-builders, to inspire and require pupils to learn for seven hours each day. I often talk about the national and provincial governments’ responsibility to set high standards, support good teachers and principals, and fire the bad ones.
At every opportunity my colleagues and I get, we make a point of talking about what we are doing with the young people of the Western Cape because we are getting better together. We do this to show that mountains can be moved with few resources. When I go to sleep at night, my last thought is often: ‘can we do better together, tomorrow?’ The Democratic Alliance (DA) and I will not rest until every child in South Africa has real opportunities to live a life they value.
Young people must also ask themselves what they can do to create new jobs. The government does not create jobs; it creates the conditions for businesses to create jobs. South Africa needs the creativity and ingenuity of the youth to start new companies to create new jobs. We need young people’s insights and critical thinking skills to fight poverty and homelessness, crime and discrimination, and to make our nation fairer, freer – and more democratic.
The GIBS report also shows that 3 in 4 learners believe that business has more power than government in South Africa. Slightly fewer learners agree that improvements in South Africa will come about through government intervention. This tells me that young people understand that the government has a smart and capable role in helping businesses perform better.
We also need to see young people shaping the agendas of the nation’s political parties. I ask every young person to cast your vote, regardless of who you support. Take responsibility for the vote you cast because it came at a high price. You are responsible for how good or bad your government is by how you cast your vote. In a democracy, people get the government they deserve.
As everyone knows, I have worked hard to help get talented young people elected to key positions in the DA. The DA today has the most diverse and youthful profile of any political party at any time in South Africa’s history. We are also the most non-racial party SA has ever had.
This might be my proudest achievement because a leader is doomed when they stop thinking about tomorrow – or even the present hour. However, keeping alive the courage and vision of the youth of ’76 is more than just putting young faces into key political and leadership positions.
Political activism, like it was on June 16 1976, remains a rough and tough place to be. Political activism also remains the place for blood, sweat and sacrifice. It will always be the frontline for the pursuit of courage and excellence. Today, political parties compete to get their voices heard in the 24 hour media cycle. But let us never lose sight of what we are trying to do. While it is important that we communicate our message, we do not govern through tomorrow’s headlines, but in word and deed.
The DA is proud about our role in putting young people’s needs centre stage. Let us honour Hector Pietersen by overturning the cynical and weary times in which we live. Let us rise to the challenges of young people of South Africa by word and deed.