Youth Day was established to commemorate the deaths of secondary and primary school students on that June day 41-years ago in the then rigidly segregated township of Soweto where apartheid police rained gunfire on a massive student demonstration against the inferior education mandated for non-whites by the era’s white supremacist government.
That June 16, 1976 Soweto uprising was a pivotal event that energized the long struggle to end racist apartheid in South Africa, a nation that now enjoys a multi-racial democracy. But festering ills in South Africa like youth unemployment exceeding 50 percent, deadly drug-related crime and income inequities at world record levels have again energized youth to confront government repugnant policies and practices.
Although hecklers assailed South Africa’s President, a once imprisoned anti-apartheid activist, during his Youth Day address, bashing his ineptness and corruption, that national celebration did include focus on helping youth and highlighting their talents. In Cape Town, for example, youth gave rousing performances on a stage at that city’s vibrant Victoria & Albert Waterfront.
It’s cool that South Africa recognizes the sacrifices of those youth – slain, injured or imprisoned during the 1976 Soweto uprising – who stood up to right the ugly wrongs of apartheid.
And, it’s cool that the United Nations established International Youth Day in 1999 that is now recognition (on different days of the year) in 18 nations…yet not in the United States.
However, it’s cruel that all countries everywhere do not celebrate youth everyday.
Is it really necessary to restate the reality that the future of every nation on earth rests with the youth of that nation?
As Marian Wright Edelman, director of America’s Children’s Defense Fund, wrote earlier this year, “Child poverty is too expensive to continue.” Edelman noted that every year costs arising from lost productivity, crime and health costs “for adults who grew up poor” amount to $500 billion.
The extreme poverty underlying economic statistics in South Africa is visible in the faces of children living in the densely populated, grossly deprived shantytowns in cities like Cape Town, the nation’s oldest and Johannesburg, the nation’s largest.
Americans shouldn’t be smug about child poverty in South Africa considering ignored facts compiled by the Children’s Defense Fund like America having 14.7-million poor children and 6.5-million extremely poor children.
In Philadelphia, 38.3 percent of the children live in poverty, the highest percentage of any big city in America according to a report released last fall by Public Citizens for Children and Youth (PCCY).
Education is a recognized stairway to economic improvement in life yet Pennsylvania ranks 46th in its funding to schools. The conservative legislators in Harrisburg that gut public school funding gift corporate tax breaks.
The refusal of public and private leaders to use available resources to raise children from poverty stains America’s entire society.