09 July 2007

Liberation Before Education

A five-week strike has crippled the education and health care sectors in South Africa. Teachers and nurses are tired of sub-par wages and inflation increases, demanding a 12% raise in salary. The government says it can’t afford that increase. The recent 200% raise for administrators, however, says otherwise. No matter which side you may agree with, the fact is that sick people and children are the ones suffering. A woman was brutally beaten to death yesterday while attempting to enter a hospital to volunteer in the maternity ward. Kids are spending their free time drinking, smoking and, as one Youth Venturer told me, “most definitely having unprotected sex” in a country with a 25% HIV infection rate.

At our lunch I asked these active, engaged, educated Youth Venturers how they felt about the strike and almost all of them wanted the teachers to go back to work. “They strike and we suffer,” one of them said. “I mean, I get what they want, but they aren’t losing out on anything. We are. We are losing out on our education. Our exams. Everything.”

Before he could finish his thought one of the adults in the room – an Ashoka staff member chimed in – “Think about what you are saying. Do you really feel that way? Do you really understand the situation?” She went on to describe her generation’s struggle with Apartheid and how they were committed to “liberation before education,” knowing full-well that the only way they would be heard is if they took control, made a scene and shut down the system. “We used kids. We used young people. We rallied them in the fight because people would listen when children were involved. We did the only thing we knew how to do, which is stop everything from functioning.”

I immediately saw the tension and frustration on both sides, and how their responses represented the great generation gap that continues to grow between young people and their parents. It is true that the only outlet our parents had was to protest; make a scene; shut things down. It happened in the US with the hippie movement in the 60’s and 70’s and it happened in South Africa when young people united against Apartheid. Now, it seems that young people have more faith in the system and see value in infiltrating it. That is, creating change from the inside out. From the Venturer’s comment about not being able to go to school, what I heard was: “Now I can’t go to school and I need to go to school so I can pass exams, go to University, graduate, get into the government and change the policies myself.” It was a sense of “can do and will do,” rather than searching for some way to go against the grain.

It is also a feeling that all that protesting and frustration and shutting down isn’t productive – like there are better ways to spend their time. And maybe this is a product of the fact that the internet and cell phones have made us an “instant gratification” generation. You want to talk to someone? Call them on their cell phone! It’s always on and they’re always carrying it. Want to know something? Get on the Internet and search on Google. You’ll find 10,000 answers, all with their own angle. We are an information generation.

Do our parents and grandparents miss this? Do they “not get it?” At some level, I’d say yes, but how can we blame them? We’ve grown up with this technology as part of our everyday lives, making us experts on how the world communicates in a world run by people who are playing catch-up in the learning department.

Are young people slightly naïve? Also yes. Just in South Africa, while these youth may have access to the Internet, cell phones and a quality education in a supportive home, this is not the case for the majority.

70% of young people go home to parents who are out of work and unmotivated. 50% of kids in Soweto don’t get more than one full meal a day. I was at a soccer game only to find that most kids don’t have shoes – much less cleats – to play in. A majority were barefoot. Now, talk to that kid and ask him what options he sees for himself, or how he feels about being out of school and I’m sure the answer will be quite different. Every time M-Po and I go walking through Soweto with her son Tembo, every single person stop to stare and gawk. Out of 4 million people in Soweto, M-Po guessed that I was “probably the only White person sleeping here tonight.” Most young guys immediately start heckling her. “Found yourself a white boyfriend? Now you’re going to be rich and he is going to father your children.” Is instigating change in the government the first thing on their minds? I doubt it.

Does that mean we should stop trying? Absolutely not! Things are changing, however slow that change might be. What we need to do then, is unite these young people around something – the belief that they are empowered to create change. “We were united behind something when we were young,” An Ashoka fellow told me. “These young people, they need something that brings them together.” So then, the new mantra seems to be one of liberation THROUGH education. Liberation from poverty. Liberation from ignorance. Liberation from hunger. Yes, it would be nice if the teachers got back to work, but it would also be nice if the government paid them what they deserved. After all, they’re facilitating this new liberation, offering the means to build this movement. So maybe it’s going to a take a mix of both – signs hoisted in the air, college grads infiltrating the system. This is a fight that has to be fought on multiple fronts, and we have the power, knowledge and commitment to do that. Join us. It’s going to be a wild ride.

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