Reigniting youth citizenship in South Africa

7 Oct 2015
Scenes from the removal of the Cecil Rhodes statue at the University Cape Town.

South Africa celebrates Youth Day every June 16 to commemorate the students who lost their lives during the Soweto Uprising in 1976. An estimated 3,000-10,000 students marched to protest the apartheid government’s directive to make Afrikaans a compulsory medium of instruction in public education, alongside English. The violent police response to this peaceful protest led to a widespread revolt against the government and exposed the brutality of the apartheid state to the international community. These events brought energy back into the liberation struggle and pushed young citizens to play a pivotal role in ending apartheid.

In March of this year, students were back in the limelight once again thanks to the “Rhodes Must Fall” movement (see for more information). This began as a protest by University of Cape Town (UCT) students for the removal of a commemorative statue of Cecil John Rhodes on the main campus due to his major role in colonialism in Southern Africa. This has since expanded into a broader coalition of students and staff to address institutional racism at UCT, and has inspired similar movements at other universities throughout the country.

Afrobarometer findings on citizenship indicate how exceptional this kind of activism has become in South Africa today. In 2011 (latest available data), only 11% of young respondents (aged 18-35) had attended a demonstration or protest march in the preceding year. Furthermore, almost a fifth (19%) said that they would never do so.    

For more on general trends in youth citizenship, check out our special dispatch: South African youth patriotic, optimistic about national cohesion, but low on civic engagement

Rorisang Lekalake
Afrobarometer assistant project manager/ Southern Africa