Are books the youth’s new protest posters?
There’s an African proverb which says, the greatest wars are fought with words. What then do we do as young Africans? Do we write more? Do we read more? Do we resort to violence or civil disobedience? Two young Africans are making their mark with books. This month we review Malaika wa Azania’s ‘Memoirs of a Born Free’ and Sihle Bolani’s ‘We are the ones we need’.
In 1976, the youth took to the streets to protest against an education system that robbed them of the opportunity to acquire knowledge, escape mental slavery and enjoy financial freedom.
Today, the struggle of the youth is different, where the youth of ’76 did not have access to information, we are overloaded with it. Where they struggled with an education system that aimed to oppress and suppress them, we have “good” education systems that we cannot afford.
Where the youth of ’76 had specific jobs prescribed for them according to their race, our generation is stuck either without jobs or working in toxic environments. And while the youth have been actively protesting on the streets of universities across the country, more and more young people have chosen books as their protest posters.
Two of those young people being authors Sihle Bolani and Malaika wa Azania with their respective books We are the ones we need and Memoirs of a Born Free.
We Are the Ones We Need: The war on black professionals in corporate South Africa
Author: Sihle Bolani
In an economic climate where there is almost a 50% (or higher) chance that you will not find work in corporate South Africa, the last thing in a young unemployed person’s mind is finding a healthy working environment. Another thing I can attribute to the high youth unemployment rate is the fear that young people have in the workplace. Young people tend to be afraid of complaining lest they be seen as ungrateful and thus lose their jobs. There is also a misconception that employment is a favour that an employer does for the seemingly replaceable employee and not the mutually beneficial agreement it is meant to be.
In the book ‘We are what we need’, Bolani shares her struggles as a young black professional in corporate SA. In this book that one reader called a “one-woman protest”, the author tackles the challenges faced by black professionals in South Africa’s corporate environment. With themes such as structural racism in organisations and the role executives play in sustaining discriminatory practices; pay discrimination; the emotional and psychological trauma suffered by black professionals as a result of corporate abuse and the suppression of black talent, especially black women, Bolani is pulling out all the stops! Since the release of the book in late 2018, many young black professionals have come out to share the commonalities between Bolani and their own experiences in the corporate world.
One particular reader on goodreads.com expresses how, while reading the book, she needed a moment to process how someone could live her very own experience in the legal corporate world “so accurately and equally cruel”.
While South Africa evidently needs to work a lot harder on creating jobs and lowering the youth unemployment rate, we equally need to make a conscious effort to improve the corporate experience of young people – particularly young people of colour. Bolani takes the initiative by closing off the book with some suggestions on how this can be done. So whether you are a junior staff member or an employer, take a moment, grab a copy of this page turner and join Bolani’s protest against toxic work environments and employee abuse. Who knows, maybe it will take you standing up to change your place of employment for the better!
Memoirs of a Born Free: Reflections on the new South Africa by a member of the post-apartheid generation
Author: Malaika wa Azania
25 years into democracy, are the young people of South Africa really born free? In 2014, before the tipping point of student and youth activism since 1976, 22-year old Malaika wa Azania wrote the first edition of the book, Memoirs of a Born Free. This book is an account of growing up as a “born-free”—a member of the generation born after the end of apartheid in South Africa.
The author was disheartened by the hardships young black people still face, for example, “black tax” the need for her age cohort, the first in their families with some economic mobility, to financially support multiple generations, and by the ruling African National Congress’s (ANC) failure to live up to the ideals it espoused as a resistance movement.
The whole book could, in fact, be summarised as an open letter to the ANC in efforts to make them aware liberators can and often do become oppressors. Or, as George Owen writes, power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
This author also shares her life experiences to help paint the picture of the common lived realities of young black South Africans. She takes the reader through her upbringing in post-apartheid Soweto and alludes to the fact that desegregation does not equal integration as inequalities continue to widen the gap between the haves and the have nots. Similar to Bolani, Malaika wa Azania also looks into institutional racism except she looks at the root of the professional’s programme – the schooling system. She notes how the universal language policy of offering all subjects in English and/or Afrikaans with only one option of choosing to do an African language as an elective is an example of structural racism.
In 2018, Malaika wa Azania writes a second edition of the book as necessitated by the events that followed the initial release of the book. In the foreword she notes that she had been transformed by the various movements that South African youths had gone through since 2014.
From Rhodes Must Fall to Fees Must Fall and then the fight for the insourcing of workers in institutions of higher learning, any young activist would say that that events that took place from 2015 to 2017 were truly life changing! As an activist herself, Malaika’s narrative is written with little distance from these events.
In a time when young African people are called to document their own stories, Malaika wa Azania does just that through this book which is a real-time document of South African life and less a traditional memoir.
Clearly young people are speaking, both in traditional protests and in books. And as the African proverb says, the greatest wars are fought with words. What then do we do as young Africans? Do we write more? Do we read more? Do we resort to violence or civil disobedience? Whatever we do, we are responsible for the decisions we make and the legacy we leave for the generations coming after us, so we can no longer sit and do nothing.
Both books are available on Kindle and bookstores nationwide.
This is a story from the ACTIVATE! Change Drivers Network. A network of over 3000 diverse young people driving change for the public good across South Africa. Members of this network, Activators, are connected by their passion, skills, sense of self and spark to address tough challenges. Follow ACTIVATE! on social media @ActivateZA on twitter and ACTIVATE! Change Drivers on Facebook.”