As we approach Youth day and look at the role played by today’s youth in current affairs it is, clear that the youth continues to play a critical role in defining the country’s course of democracy.

In celebrating Fort Hare University’s centenary, one is offered an unprecedented opportunity to reflect on the manner in which other tertiary institutions are creating a new chapter of our history. Fort Hare is an institution known for making a significant contribution to the development and shaping of access to tertiary education for the disenfranchised during Apartheid. Similarly, institutions are able to contribute to the development and shaping of democracy, for the currently disenfranchised, during this democratic dispensation.

Fort Hare took pride in extracting the most liberating, enriching and valuable elements from history, the seeds of a more tolerant South Africa that reflected the brown population of South Africa, in the context of racial segregation. The institution has been etched into history as a result of the vibrant and politically active student movement. Fort Hare’s activism and success are symbolised by thought leaders such as; Oliver Tambo, Govan Mbeki, Nelson Mandela, Robert Sobukwe, Herbert Chitepo, Charles Njonja and Robert Mugabe – individuals who made a significant impact in their respective countries.

Currently, student movements continue to highlight political issues. Their ability to raise public attention, when there is an undercurrent of discontent, has the potential to; create, destabilise and even defeat regimes. They are drivers of the change in public discourse.

The relevance of student movements in reform and changing of status quo

The power of the student movement, in South Africa, was evident during the 2015 “FeesMustFall” campaigns that led to a moratorium on all fee increments across public universities. The successful petitioning for various colonial leaders’ statues to be removed from campuses, starting with the “RhodesMustFall” campaign was another prominent example. Students continue to bring to the fore previously side-lined issues such as gender representation in power structures, transformation at previously white universities; the recent introduction of gender-sensitive toilets in Wits university to accommodate transgendered students; better access to NSFAS funding in institutions of higher learning such as Technical Vocational Education and Training colleges are some examples.

The existence and relevance of Student Representative Councils (SRC) and other student structures have forced transparency and accountability in governance. The coming local elections will likely see the voice of the youth becoming a louder and resounding voice of change. It should be every political party to ensure the capture of the youth, thus influencing and aligning to the needs of the youth to their political mandate. Political parties unable to find strategies and techniques that will successfully resonate with the youth voters will lose relevance. Parties need to strongly assert themselves in finding ways to tap into the broader societal grievances that plague the youth.

The student movement of South Africa, through the SRC and other youth structures, has a new role. This is to; redefine, reshape and move forward the narrative of former student leaders.  Instead of fighting for liberation and freedom, the current student movement must seek to reposition itself, as empowered change agents in the political, economic, cultural and social revolution that is unfolding in the country. With the courage and willingness shown by South Africa’s current youth one is given hope that our hard-won democracy, is in good hands and can realise more benefits for our country as a whole.

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