Ploughing back to uplift our youth

In the new library at his alma mater, Beacon Hill High School in Mitchells Plain, Jeremy Michaels shares a story about how the Mitchells Plain Students Congress helped to bring down apartheid.

There is a tough and pressing question which all young people in Mitchell’s Plain, Khayelitsha and every corner of our country must be able to answer: ‘What does my future look like?’

I recently put that question to a dozen or so pupils at Beacon Hill High School, my alma mater. Quite frankly, I was astounded by their replies. Without fail, each pupil told me very clearly – and with very little hesitation – what they dreamt of doing with their lives after school. In spite of the obvious financial difficulties, these young people all had a dream which they were determined to make a reality: to study once completing matric. Save for one young man who wasn’t quite sure about his plans, the career choices of his classmates spanned a variety of fields, from corporate law to accounting and engineering. This was an impressive departure from the “I’m not sure” which I so often hear.

Since I had successfully navigated my way from being a leading “klipgooier” when I was at Beacon Hill in the late 1980s to become a political correspondent, then a senior government communicator and more recently, a corporate public affairs specialist, Ms Ebrahim, a teacher who started her career at our school, had invited me to talk about our experiences in the struggle. She wanted to give a personal touch to the history lessons she was giving on the United Democratic Front (UDF) and the Defiance Campaign which finally broke the back of the apartheid state, not to mention a looming assignment for which her pupils had to interview a former political activist. Somewhat reluctantly, I agreed to tell my story.

By the time I went to Beacon Hill to do my first year of high school in 1986, the UDF had been launched just a few years before in the Rocklands civic centre. Under the banner “UDF Unites, Apartheid Divides”, representatives of some 565 organisations from across the country had gathered in Rocklands on 20 August 1983 to show that African, coloured, Indian and white communities wanted a new, united, non-racial, non-sexist and democratic South Africa.

The historic 1985 riots had also given rise to a renewed sense of urgency among those in the UDF and the exiled African National Congress who realised that the apartheid government was desperately clinging to power in the face of a tide of resistance.

The South African Police (SAP) and South African Defence Force (SADF) had running battles with thousands of militant youth in the latter half of 1985 as a wave of violent resistance saw tyres burning in townships across the country.

I joined the Student Representative Council (SRC) at Beacon Hill in 1986 and soon was one of the SRC leaders representing my school on the structures of the Mitchell’s Plain Students’ Congress (MIPSCO), a UDF affiliate organisation, which in turn sent me on to the structures of the Western Cape Students’ Congress (WECSCO). In no time I was on the radar of the feared Security Branch of the SAP. These so-called “officers of the law” were notorious for capturing and then torturing fellow student leaders in prison.

As a 14-year-old who had grown up in a deeply Christian home, the arguments supporting the struggle for justice and equality came naturally.

The fact that the head of our church, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, was one of the leaders of the anti-apartheid movement was a rather convenient reason for my involvement when I had to answer difficult questions years later from my grandmother, a devout Anglican, about why the police had so frequently come looking for me at home in the dead of night.

Other comrades from Beacon Hill, such as Faiez Jacobs (currently the ANC’s secretary in the Western Cape), André Bruce (now an officer in the SA Navy), Errol April (a citrus farmer) and Mark Jackson (who runs an entrepreneurial catering business) spent long spells in prison under PW Botha’s detention without trial scheme.

There were many more young people from Mitchell’s Plain and other parts of the Western Cape who had been held in prison and went into hiding for their involvement in organising the youth under the banners of MIPSCO, WECSCO, the Cape Youth Congress (CAYCO) and other UDF structures. Gloria Veale (Glendale High), Walleen and Freda Mostert (Mondale High), Salie Hartley (Spine Road High), Ziegfried and Meliscine McConney (Aloe High), Leeanne Solomons (Woodlands High), Brenda, Estelle and Joanne Leonard (Rocklands High), Oscar van Heerden and Christopher Solomon (Portland High), Jakes Baartman and Neil Mentor (Cedar High) and Chantlé Hoffman (Westridge High) are some of those who come to mind immediately. The list is just too long.

Simply put, there were many, many young people who joined UDF structures in the mid- to late-1980s, organised massive protests and made huge sacrifices to ensure that Nelson Mandela and others were set free and the ANC, et al, was unbanned in 1990.

Combined with the efforts of the international anti-apartheid movement, armed struggle and underground structures, the mass-based resistance to apartheid in the form of boycotts, stay-ways, marches and riots brought the National Party regime to its knees, laying the foundation for South Africa to hold its first democratic election in 1994.

As we commemorate the 40th anniversary of the 1976 uprisings on June 16, it is all good and well to remember where we come from and tell stories about those interesting times.

Equally important, though, is that question which the current generation of youth has to answer “What does my future look like?” It is precisely for this reason that I have become intimately involved in what I believe is a very important project for the community which played such a crucial role in shaping my future.

The Mitchell’s Plain Bursary and Role Model Trust (www.mpbursarytrust.org.za) is a not-for-profit organisation committed to providing financial assistance for deserving matriculants who dream of having careers – and a brighter future. The trust announced R1.26 million worth of bursaries for 56 students at its annual awards ceremony held on May 14 at Glendale High.

The trust was established at the end of 2010 by Trevor Manuel, supported by long-serving community activists such as Veronica Simmers, Theresa Solomon, Sheikh Ebrahim Gabriels, Achmat Chotia andNa’eem Kassiem (the principals of Glendale and Oval North high schools respectively), among others. Ms Simmers, Sheikh Gabriels and Mr Chotia still serve as trustees with a fresh team of skilled volunteers who work tirelessly to help make dreams come true.

This sort of voluntary work is rooted in the lessons from our involvement in organisations such as MIPSCO, CAYCO and the UDF back in the turbulent 1970s and 1980s. It is time for all activists to plough back into our communities, to help fight poverty and, crucially, to help create opportunities for the youth.

We must build alumni societies and dig into our pockets to support the work of organisations such as the Mitchell’s Plain Bursary and Role Model Trust.

Too many young people are still unsure about the future; we must do something to help, urgently!