The events of June 16th 1976 is something of common knowledge to most South Africans; a peaceful demonstration by students in Soweto taking a bloody turn after police opened fire with live ammunition on the more than 15 000 who joined in on the protest. The incident left an indelible mark on South African society and served as a major catalyst in the anti-Apartheid struggle. Each year the hundreds of lives lost as a result of the ‘Soweto Uprising’ are honoured as part of Youth Day.
It is safe to say that the conditions and opportunities afforded to youth of colour in South Africa have taken a more positive turn since then, although question marks do remain in areas like job opportunities and quality of education.
A major benefactor of these conditions has been the youth in the local Muslim community, who are now well represented in almost all sectors of South African society. In recent years especially, Muslim youth have taken major strides in their respective fields of expertise.
Social activism and human rights
Amongst the most striking features of the local Muslim community has been its unbridled support for the Palestinian cause for justice and this has been notably the case amongst younger generations. One such individual who has taken up the mantle has been Muhammad Desai, a co-ordinator for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions South Africa (BDS SA). His involvement with the popular movement is in his own words, “part of a much larger agenda to make the world a better and more just place”.
According to Desai, the BDS campaign and the Palestinian struggle as a whole served as an inspiring and motivating space, largely because of the greater participation of young activists.
“It is also inspiring because we are scoring victories. You can see you achievements on a weekly, if not daily basis. You can see BDS making ground and the Israeli state going into complete berserk-mode because of this isolation it is under,” he explained.
Whilst acknowledging and commending the contributions of young Muslims making waves in various sectors of local society, he was keen to stress that they not be viewed as a separate entity or an isolated block, but rather as part of the broader South African population as a whole.
Desai also had some analysis on areas where young Muslims need show a bit more representation.
“You do see a little bit of a decrease in the political and civil society sectors. We do need to see more youngsters in student organisations addressing educational issues. Even in politics itself there is a space for us to occupy and contribute,” he highlighted.
Ahead of Youth Day, activist and chairperson of the Muslim Youth Movement, Minhaj Jeenah, gave a powerful talk at the Claremont Mosque reiterating the need for youth activism and Muslim involvement in broader South African society.
In a stark and honest manner, Jeenah criticised Muslim apathy and highlighted how Muslim political involvement during Apartheid was labeled as kufr – disbelief.
“There is a Muslim identity beyond the heroic anti-apartheid Muslim – which we so proudly claim. In order for us to properly progress with our political participation, we need to speak about this. We need to speak about how the majority of Muslims, often with Ulama encouragement, were conveniently apathetic towards apartheid and forgot the fiqh imperative that silence in the face of injustice is tantamount to tacit approval,” he said.
Muslim numbers growing on campus
Another major example of the progress being made by Muslim youth is the sheer numbers now entering tertiary education, and the contributions they are making on campuses across the country. This is to the extent that Muslim Student Association’s (MSA) are now present in almost all universities and colleges.
Recently elected president of the MSA Union, Muhammad Sheikh said the Muslim representative was to such an extent that universities were now recognising their needs without the need for MSA intervention. In a more simplified sense, the increased demographic of Muslim students was making tertiary institutions more inclined to provided ‘Halal facilities’, allowing the MSA to shift its focus to other issues on campus.
According to Sheikh, the MSA also served a role of providing a springboard for the youth to move on to bigger and better things.
“There are many of our youth out there who are progressing and striving in different aspects of our existence. Maybe not that much credit is being given to them, but there definitely are students out there (making a contribution),” he said.
‘Work with broader society for common good’
Post-education, one of the major sectors where Muslim youth are seeing a growing influence is the medical field, with a sizable amount already in the system and even more opting to pursue medicine as a career.
One such individual is Dr Yaseen Khan, co-founder of the Open Medicine Project South Africa which has seen the launch of several mobile applications dedicated to improving the state of healthcare in low resource settings. The apps make available to doctors in these areas the right ‘clinical guidelines’ and information to better improve their services.
Dr. Khan said the medical field was a great opportunity to allow Muslim youth the opportunity to build bridges with, and share in “fundamentally human” causes with the South African majority.
“I think one of the challenges is not to see ourselves as an isolated community and work towards the good of only our community. If we reach out and work for the common good with other people, we will grow in stature as a community and ummah much more so,” he acknowledged.
‘Career opportunities are diverse’
The opportunities for young Muslims are not limited either. While many would be content with the common university then stable job format, in increased number of youth within the community waking up to more creative and unique career fields.
Up-and-coming stand up comedian, Yaseen Barnes said he was seeking to use his platform to reach out to the younger generation that nothing was out of reach, and that areas like comedy could be a viable career option if an individual was determined enough.
“It is not as popular as being a doctor or an accountant, but it is an option for the youth. That is one of the things I think I can give to them, which is to tell them that there are other options,” he explained.
In a broader sense, he said Muslim youth were taking up more prominent roles in all fields within South African society.
“The recognition is building, and it is gathering momentum and making it easier for Muslim youth to do anything they want,” Barnes added.
In terms of the creative arts, two young men making waves in their field are Cape Town brothers Hasan and Husain Essop. The Athlone born twins won the 2014 Standard Bank Young Artist Award for their work in the field of visual arts. The identical twins are renowned for their unique approach to art, which often sees them appearing in their own photographs.
The Essops’ graduated from the Michaelis School of Fine Art in 2007. During 2009 they completed a residency in Cuba – coinciding with the inclusion of their work in the Havana Biennale – and facilitated a workshop on invitation from the University of Hamburg, Germany. Most of their themes deal with notions of performance, representation, and the tension between self and other. Islam and Cape Town Muslim culture have been a core part of their artistic ethos.
“We are just excited to be given an opportunity to carry on making work, and to actually have a platform to show it,” said Hasan.
Muslim youth presence in sports
In the sporting field, few have taken greater strides in such a short period of time than Springbok loose forward, Nizaam Carr who on Saturday led the DHL Stormers out for the first time. It capped a meteoric rise for the Mitchell’s Plain born rugby player, who only made his full-first team appearance at provincial level in 2011. Carr also earned a first call up to the national side in November last year.
“It is basically every young boy’s rugby dream to be part of that Springboks’ squad. I’ve been training hard, and have been dedicated and motivated throughout my life, so to get this opportunity now is really great,” he told VOC following his call up to the Springboks side.
As the South Africans in general mark June 16th by acknowledging the contributions made by those 15 000 or more who took to the streets in 1976, it is equally important to look at the contributions current and succeeding generations can make to the progress of this country.
While society constantly bemoans today’s youth for its moral decay and with the high levels of substance abuse and gangsterism, its easy to assume that youth are on a downward spiral. These group of Muslim youth and many others prove that circumstances should not dictate your success and young people have to confront contemporary challenges with gusto and perseverance. VOC (Mubeen Banderker)