Unarmed Youth

Phumlani Pikoli on the real meaning of Youth Day

Words: Phumlani Pikoli

I remember the first time I heard Tumi and The Volume, the haunting melancholy of “76“, where the rapper’s poetic background wrapped itself in a reimagining of a painful history that as black kids we grew up with, and had never really been given space to contemplate. The way the band carried the burden of Apartheid made it an accessible point of hurt that we had long been forced to accept and sullenly carry, as history and politics were not considered polite in conversation. As a 15-year-old kid confused and dejected and smoking weed to cloud myself from the reality of suppressing my impressions of whiteness, the violins, bass, poetry and Pebbles’ heart wrenching voice allowed to me to access the point of my pain clearly for the first time. 

I was a different me back then: a me that needed to explore and understand my context. The band, an eclectic outfit that South Africa liked to portray as its true self, gave me confidence to overcome my fear and confront my subdued anger. 

I began to devour literature that would help a clouded and inarticulate mind begin to scratch away at the surfaces that made my world. With every sentence I read my mind began to overcome hurdles I hadn’t realised were hindering my understanding of this place. I read the Drum writers’ short stories of township living that made sense to my suburban reality. I was still an unwelcome sight in this site of privilege. It was assumed that our economic position was ill-gotten and school teachers were never remiss to remind us of how the ANC government were ransacking the country’s wealth reserves.

Each joint smoked took me further and further away from my presented reality. I couldn’t get through a school day without the magical aid of Mary Jane.

I was pissed off at my parents for not being able to help me navigate the hostility that surrounded us. We were under siege, and what was the job of a parent if not to protect their child? We were under siege at home. Under siege at school. We were silently being told how to think and how to act. We didn’t have voices outside of indulging vernacular to exclude and cling to this idea of sullen superiority. 

This is, for me, why I find the '76 phenomena so powerful. An unjust government that claimed moral superiority over a majority and on stolen land told its victims that it was going to further humiliate them and that there was nothing they could do about it. 

In the movie Body of Lies, Ed Hoffman says, “It is a fallacy that prolonged war will weaken an occupied enemy. It most likely will make your enemy stronger. They get used to the deprivation, and they adapt and respond accordingly.” 

This is something that the hubris of white supremacy didn’t bank on with the youth of ‘76. They did not understand that after they’d taken literally everything from people – who now understand that their lives aren’t lives at all – that these people were the living dead. They had nothing to lose, and were willing to lose even more.

Those kids stood up and told John Vorster, the most powerful man in the country at the time, to go and f**k himself. And while the world was shocked by the image of Mbuyisa carrying Hector in his arms, black people understood this pain. They had unwittingly come to accept that this was the price of demanding freedom. 

Stokely Carmichael, later known as Kwame Ture, once famously said, “In order for nonviolence to work, your opponent must have a conscience.” 

The Rhodes Must Fall Movement (RMF) is South Africa’s proudest moment in the effort to shatter the chains of the omnipresent colonial yoke. 

While the rest of us decided to smoke the pain away, silenced ourselves in front of true power and cowered in the face of first-language articulation varsity lecture rooms, the kids grew more bold and not only spoke truth to power but took on power physically – all the while being berated as mindless, savage and barbaric. 

They not only listened to the literary African canon, but enacted it. While we, their predecessors, took to social media, dinner parties and clubs to wage our moral struggle, which was rooted in self-preservation in the space of whiteness rather than the altruistic pursuit of emancipation for all.


We speak of Youth Day as if it’s another day to kick it round a fire and burn meat. Like the struggle is dead or has ended. We’re still in the fight and for those who cynically denounced the generation born of the 1994 democratic election, take a seat and watch.

‘76 is still here. She wails every year and RMF heard her cries, empathised and took a stand to correct the injustices of the past that currently comfort the present.

What does Youth Day really mean? It means energy to effect real change. To use resources to not only protect your own limited political privilege, but to understand that the majority of our people can’t speak to us.

Not because they don’t want to. Rather because as soon as they begin, we critique the aesthetically non-pleasing sound of a non-native English speaker.

To that 15-year-old kid twisting biscuits and frustrated at his situation, know that there are many who fought before you, many that will fight after you and there’s nothing wrong, that there’s nothing stopping you from fighting now. 

We celebrate our fighters. Our South African Youth.