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On Academic Gowns and Freedom: Youth Day in Mount Ayliff

Written Zikhona Mtwa

On Youth Day, June 16th each year, South Africa commemorates the Soweto uprising of 1976 and the heroics and bravery of the 13-year-old school pupil, Hector Pieterson, who was shot and killed by the South African police on the corner of Moema and Vilakazi street. He was famously pictured below in the arms of Mbuyisa Makhubo, accompanied by his sister, Antionette, as they tried to carry him to safety. He was declared dead on arrival at the clinic. Hector Pieterson became an icon in this uprising. Since democracy, events are organised around the country such as concerts, dialogues, and commemoration services to celebrate the youth struggles of 1976 and the spirit of Hector Pieterson.

Far left image: Hector Pieterson in the arms of Mbuyisa Makhubo, accompanied by his sister, Antionette on June 16th, 1976. Middle: A later re-purposed and controversial image of the iconic Youth Day photograph of dying Hector Pieterson replaced by academic gown.

Far right: Mountain Ayliff Hairdresser wearing school uniform.

In 2023, I spent youth day in the small rural town of Mount Ayliff where I am doing my fieldwork. There seemed to be little sign of celebration or organised activity. During the week leading up to youth day, I did not hear of any events that were going to take place to commemorate this day in the community. This surprised me because Mount Afliff is a densely populated rural town with many young people in schools or unemployed or even working in stores. It made me wonder whether youth in rural areas still had organisations that championed their rights and attended to their welfare or whether anyone here knew about the heroics of Hector Pietersen and his spirit of courage and determination.

I remember it was common for veterans of the Soweto Uprising to wear their school uniforms in memory of the contribution of school-going youth to the struggle. Although this tradition has faded in recent years, I was surprised to see a hairdresser at a local hair salon working while wearing a school uniform. She explained that she wore the school uniform every year as a sign of respect for the youth of 1976. As I lingered there, waiting for my appointment, I heard the comments of her customers, where one customer jibbed: “Why do you wear a school uniform, surely Hector Peterson should have graduated by now?”. Another said that we cannot continue to celebrate a nation of school children almost 30 years after apartheid, when the government should have ensured that more school children should be graduates. This was not the first time I was hearing this statement; “Hector Pieterson wants to see progress”. I heard it making rounds in social media over the past few years on June 16th. The comments seemed to suggest that the struggles of youth could not be celebrated until they were properly educated at tertiary institutions and employed in decent jobs.

Figure: Facebook Posts on June 16th, Youth Day: “Hector Peterson wants to see progress”

The hairdresser acknowledged these comments, stating that going to school was not what it used to be and there are now very few employment opportunities for young people, even those who have graduated and with gowns. She noted that in 1976 when the students were struggling against Bantu Education, a decent matric meant something and mattered for the future of the youth. She said that the educational struggles of youth today are now at tertiary institutions where decolonisation and the hope for better qualifications dominate. She also recalled the message of the Black Consciousness leaders in the struggles of that time, namely that the youth were struggling for self-respect and the quest for self-reliance outside the structures of racial oppression.

The hairdresser explained that, for her, progress had little to do with gaining certificates and degrees; it was all about building self-respect and making a decent living for herself and her family. It was about working hard, taking pride in what she does, and putting food on the table. She said that she did not see Hector Peterson simply as a symbol of the need for further education, but as someone who embraced the “spirit of progress”. In her view, the tradition of wearing uniforms stood for something else, something broader and more empowering than education: self-reliance, and independence, especially for her as a black woman.

The hairdresser further commented that it seemed to her that young black women with vision are starting their own businesses because they realise that ‘education can only take you so far’. ‘I only have a matric and I am making a living for myself now and have my own salon -- this does not require an academic degree’, she said. “I wear my school uniform to acknowledge the struggles of the past but do not think that school or university education will bring freedom.” “We are celebrating the wrong things if we see certificates as the things that will free us”, she continues. The hairdresser seemed to be saying that women had a better understanding of what freedom might mean in South Africa today than men, and was echoing the words of Steve Biko, who warned that better education without self-love, self-respect, and self-reliance would not lead to genuine liberation.

The silence in Mount Ayliff on Youth Day, the hairdresser speculated, was perhaps a product of the fact that the youth had seen no progress since democracy and believed they have no cause to celebrate. She noted that the male youth go around these days singing: “Ramaphosa loves unemployment” by handing out small social grants, but no jobs. She felt that the focus of youth day in the future should be on self-reliance and job creation rather than on academic gowns and graduation.

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