MALAIKA MAHLATSI: A young black woman in a racist gerontocracy that hates women


The month of June is of great significance in South Africa’s history and memory. It is a month during which we commemorate the revolutionary class of 1976 – a group of students and young people who brought the apartheid regime to its knees. It is a month during which we reflect on the long road to freedom that we have taken – freedom that claimed many casualties. Very often, the story of what happened forty years ago, on the 16th of June, is told as though students confronting the regime were shot and killed, then it ended there. But the story of what happened on that day shaped the entire trajectory of the liberation struggle. The apartheid regime did not stop hunting down young people who had participated in the June 16 protests and survived – it continued to hunt them for many years after they had returned to their classes. Our country was irreversibly changed on that chilly day almost five decades ago. For this reason, it is important that in commemorating the class of 1976, we move beyond a single day, and capture the lasting impact of their revolutionary spirit over the many years that followed.

In reflecting on the events of 1976, it is impossible not to juxtapose the struggles of those young people with those that we are confronted with today. As a young person born into a democratic South Africa, I cannot claim to know what it meant to negotiate existence under draconian laws instituted by a cruel regime. I did not live through apartheid. And yet, in so many ways, I am not untouched by its painful legacy that continues to be written into the lives of Black people and the geographies of exclusion that define our lives.

In my elderly grandmother, who is illiterate and spent her entire life working in the homes of rich white folk in the northern suburbs of Johannesburg, I experience the brutality of apartheid. In my late mother, who lost her youth to self-defence units in Soweto, and endless campaigns by the Mass Democratic Movement that she was part of, I experienced the dehumanisation of apartheid. In my extended family living in the underdeveloped townships of the Free State province, I experience the heinousness of separate development. I experience the traumas that are deeply embedded in them – traumas that have given birth to mental health pathologies which are seen in how they raise their offspring. Apartheid might have been abolished, but its painful legacy continues to permeate the atmosphere like a coiling miasma, suffocating every single black person it touches, including those of us who were posted into a new dispensation.

And so, this year, on youth month, I have been reflecting deeply on what it means to be a young person today. My reflections were sparked by the recently released South African Police Service report on the fourth quarter crime statistics. According to the report, between January and March 2022, there were 10, 818 rape cases reported in our country. This translates to just over 120 cases per day. It is important to bear in mind that reported cases do not account for all rape incidents that occurred. There are many rape incidents that go unreported, and many women and children have every reason to be reluctant to open cases, given the extent to which the criminal justice system fails so many.

I have also been reflecting on the growing levels of poverty and inequalities, which see young black people in particular on the receiving end. The youth unemployment rate, which stands at a staggering 64%, has also been a point of reflection for me. Though I am not part of the statistics, I know many of my peers who are. I see them hopeless, dehumanised and de-civilised by joblessness. I also know what it means to participate in a segmented labour market that is still characterised by racialised patterns of promotion, a gender pay-gap, and uneven remuneration for black professionals.

Above all this, I have been reflecting on the African National Congress, a governing party that has completely run out of ideas about how to resolve these salient problems. I think of its disastrous economic policies that are anchored on market fundamentalism and that are unable to facilitate much-needed radical economic transformation. I listen to its leaders – very old men and women who should be on retirement but who have been entrusted with steering the country by the members of the organisation.

The youth of 1976 fought for us to live in a better country than they inherited. I will always commemorate their selfless sacrifice. But daily, and particularly in this month of June, I cannot help but reflect on just how debilitating it is to live in a country where I am more likely to be raped and killed than I am to receive support for a start-up company.

I cannot help but reflect on just how much this new South Africa hates women. The statistics of the violence that we endure are the evidence. As Youth Month draws to an end, I cannot help but reflect on how racism continues to impact every aspect of my being. And I cannot help but reflect on how, with each day that we are led by a visionless gerontocracy, we descend deeper into the abyss.

It is very difficult to be hopeful – but the alternative is to give up. And as young people who love our country, who have inherited it from those who wrote its history with their blood, we must have the audacity of hope. Against all odds, we must believe in our own capacity to fashion a higher civilisation. It is the most appropriate way to say “Thank you” to Sibongile Mkhabela, Tsietsi Mashinini, Winnie Motlalepula Kgware, Khotso Seahlolo, Dikeledi Motswene, Hector Petersen, Martha Matthews, Hastings Ndlovu, Naledi Kedi Motsau, Mbuyisa Makhubo and many others who gave our generation a fighting chance.

Mahlatsi is a geographer, urban planner and research fellow at the University of Johannesburg’s Institute for Pan African Thought and Conversation.