A demoralised land of disorder and decay


Reading the Monday letter from President Cyril Ramaphosa citing a recent study showing a disconnect between young people and national days reminds one of Professor Sabelo Ndlovu-Gatsheni’s paper exploring how the African continent prematurely celebrated 50 years of decolonisation in Africa in 2010. He makes an important ideological distinction and definition between liberation and emancipation.

Ndlovu-Gatsheni argues that emancipation leads to liberal democracy and the realisation of individual human rights, whereas liberation is supposed to lead to decolonisation, social justice and a birth of a new humanity divorced from colonial modernity. He posits that in Africa emancipation has been privileged above liberation. To this end, the South African liberation movement was disciplined into emancipatory politics that saw the country, like many other African countries before it, celebrating liberal democracy instead of unconditional decolonisation, social justice, and freedom.

If we are to consider that liberation is the expression of aspirations of the oppressed non-western people who desire to delink from the oppressive colonial empires; then South Africans in general and South African youth in particular are far from attaining it. Not that young people do not aspire to delink from colonial empires but that the political economy rooted in emancipation (neoliberalism) does not and will not allow their cause to transition from aspiration to realisation.

Free decolonised quality higher education is still an aspiration. Land expropriation without compensation is still an aspiration. Large-scale job creation is still an aspiration. Therefore, socio-economic equality is still an aspiration.
The truth is, neoliberal, capitalist, anti-black/poor, racist, heterosexist South Africa has forgotten about young people. Former Statistician-General Pali Lehohla in a recent article equated this phenomenon to a “mother cat devouring its kittens”. No wonder than the Human Sciences Research Council study that President Ramaphosa quotes this week paints a bleak picture of young people’s perceptions of national days like June 16.

As we commemorate Youth Day this week, we must take stock of our current condition and reality of being perpetual aspirants. We must ask whether ourselves, as young people, have anything to celebrate in South Africa? If for some bizarre miracle we find a reason, we should be able to coherently name it. This is so we can figure out if it is a celebration of liberation or emancipation?

The emancipation vs liberation question is important because it puts us at a place where we can debate whether 27 years later, it is enough to celebrate democracy for the sake memorialising the heroes who lost their lives fighting for an end to colonial and apartheid oppression. Or whether 27 years later we should be celebrating unconditional attainments of liberation as defined by Ndlovu-Gatsheni?


The poet, Makhafula Vilakazi in his recent offering Concerning Blacks, captures the current national mood and reality. I think the answer to whether we have anything to celebrate this Youth Day is contained in the lines of a few of his poems.

I want to focus on two poems in Concerning Blacks collection, poem 5: _Ulele _& 7: Words.

As he argued in one interview with Funzani Mtembu, when asked to take responsibility for one of his controversial, politically uncomfortable lines, he responds by saying his poetry (art) is supposed to serve as a mirror to society. Is it for society to question, to interpret and to have honest reflections. Not for him to personalise and impose explanations of his work. So let me try to reflect on the message contained in his work.

First, I must state that I believe this recent collection of poems highlights frustrations, inhumane existence, and the unease of Black South Africans. The difficult literary picture he paints resonates with what we experience as Black youth. The collection demands an honest confrontation with reality.

Let us consider these few lines (not in order they are recited) from the poem, Words:

It was with words that Azania was married with looters in community of no property.
I don’t want to constitutionally prostitute my birth-right for fong-kong rainbows…
I do not want to rainbow without bread,
I do not want to forgive while bleeding,
Words do not break chains,
I do not want to South Africa anymore I want to Azania,
Azania of no words, of unlearning white poison, of exploding colonial bondages, of no fists in the air anymore.
Azania of beaming black smiles.

Makhafula Vilakazi – ‘Words’

The rejection of South Africa and invocation of Azania is instructive. Azania is believed to be a perfect African homeland that would have been if not for colonial-apartheid imposition. Azanian utopia was taken up by the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM) and the Pan-Africanists as a model, hoped to be realised in a post-apartheid South Africa. The utopia of Azania in this poem is pitched as a decolonised alternative and rejection of the ANCs neoliberal, capitalist stance of today.

On the poem Ulele, Makhafula places blame and responsibility at the feet of Black South Africans on their lack of political agency to revolt, realise and hold those in government accountable to deliver true liberation. To stop accepting the prevailing colonial apartheid status quo of dispossession, marginalisation, and disenfranchisement (lines not in the order they are recited).

Ulele umAfrika.
Uphuph’ isganga es’nama flower anuka kamnandi.
Udakwe kamnadi umAfrika omuhle.
Udakwe yiVangeli.
Udakwe yiNdlala.
Udakwe is’thembiso saMandela nabashana bakhe base Luthuli….
udakwe iy’ncwadi zama Ngesi nama Juda.
Udakwe uKarl Marx.
Akafundile umAfrika,
Udakwe yis’Ngisi.
Ulele phez’ kwegazi lama qhawe namagwala amnyama.
Ulele umAfrika…

Makhafula Vilakazi – ‘Ulele’

Translation will not do justice to the message carried in passages of this poem. But the poem lambasts Africans for being fast-asleep on the blood of Black heroes. Deep in slumber, dreaming of a world of milk and honey. Drunk off neoliberal white apartheid normativity, co-opted in whiteness. A picture is painted, of a Black persons drunk on emancipatory existence and experience imposed by the Euro-American benefactors of a racist-capitalism instead of using political freedom to achieve full decolonised liberation.


As we mark Youth Day, we must contend with a reality that we are a failing state, with public and state institutions deteriorating at a very fast pace. From Load shedding, water shortages, public healthcare failures, persistent ballooning youth unemployment, corruption… the list of our troubles is endless.

Malaika Mahlatsi on Facebook argues, for instance, that the multiple crises we are confronted by are a result of a government failing to govern, failing to tackle issues of land reform and economic transformation. Failing to deliver liberation to its citizens.

Political power the voters give to the ANC is premised on the expectation that they (ANC leaders) will be brave enough to demolish the neoliberal, racist, corrupt status quo and deliver liberation in the form of socio-economic redress. Deliver jobs, land/decent housing, decolonisation, and everything that would be evidence of a current and future the youth can look forward to. A current and future where they have dignity and self-determination. A current and future where young people are not slaves and prisoners of neoliberal capitalist economic system.

We need to use the current condition as a measure and stop fooling and promising a future that never arrives. It is 27 years since 1994 and 45 years since 1976. Where is the liberation we were and are promised year in year out? Where is Azania?

If you are not buying the urgency with which we should fast track the attainment of liberation, consider that we are now in the worst of the three projected Indlulamithi Scenarios. We are at the front and centre of iGwara Gwara Scenario where South Africa is a demoralised land of disorder and decay.

Wandile M Ngcaweni is a Junior Researcher at Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection (MISTRA) & a Master’s candidate at the Wits Centre for Diversity Studies. You can follow him on Twitter on @WNgcaweni.

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