GEOFFREY MAKHUBO: Our youth mustn’t be content to dig COVID-19 graves


As a teenager during the politically turbulent 1980s, it was decided that as a way of muting my increasing political activism, I would be shipped off to relatives in the North West. This was the time of PW Botha’s Total Onslaught.

The apartheid government had decided to go to all lengths to ensure its survival, hence the name of Botha’s project. As with many parents, mine feared for my safety and thought it would be better if I was in a relatively quiet Bophuthatswana – as the North West was called at the time.

Of course, no part of the country was spared from the winds of change that were blowing. Bophuthatswana was not any better. The notorious Brigadier Andrew Molope had started his own reign of power.

Molope finally met his unlamented end when four MK operatives - France Ting'Ting Masango, Obed Masina, Elias Makhuru and Neo Potsane - responded to the community’s cry for reprieve; the then police divisional commissioner of Bophuthatswana's Odi region was no more.

I say he was unlamented because at the amnesty for the 1986 assassination, Molope’s own wife, Sina Molope turned to the four men and told the commission: “My brothers, you have killed a person who was a fearsome murderer... he disappeared from the eyes of all those he was murdering.”

My stay in Bophuthatswana was therefore short-lived as it became clear that the relocation from Soweto was not having the desired effect.

One thing that struck me was how young men in the villages took their role as grave diggers - _diphiri _- seriously. As an urban boy, it had never occurred to me who dug the graves.

Being a ‘phiri’ was (and remains) a task that young men perform with pride. Even if they may not have much to give to the bereaved family, they can at least play a role in ensuring that they play a role in the deceased having a dignified funeral.

Of course, some of these reflections are with hindsight. Being urban born and raised, some of the concepts performed by rural communities might look backward, especially when looked at from the lens of someone who considered themselves urban and street smart.

As we this week commemorate the 44th anniversary of the June 16 Student Uprisings, Youth Day as we now call it, I am taken back to my time in the then Bop.

With the coronavirus being ever present in our air, as teargas was then, I ask myself what role our young people will play in the face of disease and death in our communities.

Will they, like diphiri of the North West, be content to dig graves of those killed by COVID-19, or will they be inspired by the heroism of 1976 youth and place themselves as agents of positive change in the face of a killer virus?

Perhaps as a young person, I did not see the concerns that my parents saw, hence the need to send me off hundreds of kilometres away from everything I had known, including times leading activism and debate at Morris Isaacson. But as a parent myself, I can understand why the simple matter of children returning to school must fill many parents with dread.

Youth activism has always been an ally on the side of a better life for all. COVID-19 risks negating the strides we have made towards that dream.

In other words, the virus threatens the dream that young people have of the type of future they envisage for themselves and their children.

We have always advocated that the people are their own liberators. The state’s role must be as a partner in the co-production of the future that a people have already identified for themselves.

Many communities have functional youth structures involved in varied projects, including education, arts and culture, health and, of course, politics. Government should build on these existing capabilities to ensure that young people become their community’s first line of defence against the virus.

As has been repeated many times by now, the best form of attack against the coronavirus is behavioural change. I shudder to think what we could achieve if young people, with their propensity to influence trends, were to decide that the new fashion to be followed by everyone is one that is consistent with saving lives.

The incentive for young people getting involved in this fight is that they are actually preserving their own future.

The more we do not need to redirect our already limited resources to fighting COVID-19, the greater the budget for education, housing, education, social security and other health needs.

In other words, as necessary as the funds directed towards COVID-19 have been, they have inevitably been at the expense of other pressing needs which young people will have to deal with in the future.

This fight is therefore their fight, just like the June 1976 youth understood that the fight for a better education system was a fight for their own future.

I sincerely hope that young people will step up – as they have previously about everything that involves their lives – and make their voices heard in this fight. I also hope that those who are already involved in civic work, will take on the responsibility presented to them by the times we live in.

I sincerely hope that they will not be diphiri, content to dig graves of those killed by COVID-19, but rather the heroes of the struggle of their own times.

Geoffrey Makhubo is the executive mayor of the City of Johannesburg.