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South African activist Zulaikha Patel names anti-apartheid activists Steve Biko and Winnie Madikizela-Mandela among her heroes.
Image supplied by Zulaikha Patel.
Girls & Women

Give Young People a Seat at the Decision-Making Table, Says South African Activist Zulaikha Patel


Why Global Citizens Should Care
There are almost 18 million people in South Africa aged between 18 and 24, according to StatisticsSA — about a third of South Africa’s population. Youth Day, which is commemorated on June 16, honours the role young people played in ending apartheid in the country, as well as the work of young people who continue to fight for the human rights of all South Africans. You can join us here in taking actions to help end inequalities in South Africa and globally.

Zulaikha Patel is a force of nature. At just 13 years old, she introduced the world to the power of her conviction when she and other Black schoolmates marched against Pretoria High School for Girls’ anti-Black hair policy.

According to the South African school’s code of conduct, hairstyles needed to be "conservative, neat, and in keeping with the school uniform".

The policy didn’t expressly forbid natural hair. Students reported, however, that wearing an afro or dreadlocks would be met with reactions like students being told to "fix" their hairstyles. The policy also encouraged Black students to chemically straighten their hair

Pretoria High School for Girls previously only took white pupils, until the end of apartheid in 1994. It’s still considered one of the most prestigious schools in South Africa.

In a country where every aspect of life was drawn on racial lines by the apartheid laws — from access to quality education, to housing, health care, clean water and sanitation, as well as freedom of movement, job opportunities, and cultural expression — hair policy wasn't a mere oversight.

It highlighted just how deeply discrimination still runs in South Africa, and how spaces that previously enforced apartheid racial policies had become multiracial in appearance, but remained racist in policy.

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The protest at Pretoria High School for Girls inspired similar action at Lawson Brown High School in the Eastern Cape and St. Michael's School for Girls in Bloemfontein.

With her teeth gritted, hands in fists crossed above her head, Patel stood at the forefront of the protest at her school; facing off the private security that was hired to disperse the demonstration.

There might not have been blood, violence, or death, but the standoff between Black school children peacefully demanding their human rights, only to be intimidated by the powerful institution they’re challenging, is not new. 

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On June 16, 1976, thousands of school children marched in the streets of Soweto, Johannesburg, to demand quality education for Black people, which included not being forced to learn in Afrikaans.

The protests by Black students at Patel’s school came just a year after the Fees Must Fall and Rhodes Must Fall movements in South Africa that started in 2015.

Fees Must Fall protests called for an end to the high university fees that make higher education inaccessible for many.

Rhodes Must Fall called for the removal of a statue of Cecil John Rhodes at the University of Cape Town — among other ways of decolonising universities and other spaces through removing statues and monuments that commemorate people who perpetuated racism and injustices. 

Patel, who is now 17, is among the most prominent activists to have emerged in recent years working to continue the historic movement of young Black South Africans making it known they’ve had enough of apartheid and colonial hangovers, as well as the inequalities that continue to define life in South Africa post-1994, when the country became a democracy. 

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Her activism is not a coincidence, she tells Global Citizen in a telephone interview. It’s her conviction. “I’m motivated to bring change in society because I believe no young person should abandon their childhood to fight struggles that should have been fought decades ago.”

Patel doesn’t mince her words. She wants justice, and for South Africa’s freedom to be meaningful for young people. 

“[My conviction] is inspired by a deep desire for change and justice, and the fact that as young South African people we are defined as ‘Born-Free’, but have never had a chance to interrogate freedom and ask questions about our democracy,” she continues.

She says South Africa’s freedom — often held up globally a model of reconciliation — is not a reality for young people. “Had it been, we would not have had Fees Must Fall or still be fighting racism and sexism,” says Patel. 

Statistics South Africa found that the unemployment rate among those between 15 and 34 years old increased to 29.1% the third quarter of 2019, and that people aged between 15 and 24 continue to be the most "vulnerable" in the job market.

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Meanwhile, gender issues including femicide, rape, and misogyny and domestic violence continue to plague the country.

Patel says her generation is determined to fight and end inequality. “We are getting closer one day at a time. More young people are refusing to live in silence and fear. There is a culture of telling young people to move on from apartheid and that they are privileged.”

She adds: “Young people speak up and encourage others. They are questioning and interrogating injustice in our society.”

She says one of the biggest changes needed in South Africa, and indeed Africa, is breaking down barriers that stop young people from occupying influential roles in society. One of these barriers is gatekeeping.

I Am FEZEKILE NTSUKELA KUZWAYO ( KHWEZI ) 🗣CLOTHING IS NOT AN INVITATION 🗣 “I am Khanga I wrap myself around the curvaceous bodies of women all over Africa I am the perfect nightdress on those hot African nights The ideal attire for household chores I secure babies happily on their mother’s backs Am the perfect gift for new bride and new mother alike Armed with proverbs, I am vehicle for communication between women I exist for the comfort and convenience of a woman But no no no make no mistake … I am not here to please a man And I certainly am not a seductress Please don’t use me as an excuse to rape Don’t hide behind me when you choose to abuse You see That’s what he said my Malume The man who called himself my daddy’s best friend Shared a cell with him on [Robben] Island for ten whole years He said I wanted it That my khanga said it That with it I lured him to my bed That with it I want you is what I said But what about the NO I uttered with my mouth Not once but twice And the please no I said with my body What about the tear that ran down my face as I lay stiff with shock In what sick world is that sex In what sick world is that consent The same world where the rapist becomes the victim The same world where I become the bitch that must burn The same world where I am forced into exile because I spoke out? This is NOT my world I reject that world My world is a world where fathers protect and don’t rape My world is a world where a woman can speak out Without fear for her safety My world is a world where no one, but no one is above the law My world is a world where sex is pleasurable not painful" -KHWEZI.

A post shared by Zulaikha (زليخة) Patel. (@zulaikhapatel_) on

“We’re not seeing enough young people at the decision-making table. There’s quite a lot of gatekeeping and culture of being resistant to change,” says Patel.

“When we demand change for the future that we’re going to inherit, we’re told we’re overly radical or that people at the [decision-making] table speak for us,” she adds. “We’re told we should not even question the leadership but we have not seen adequate change [in society].”

To commemorate Youth Day, Patel will be in conversation with Miss Universe Zozibini Tunzi, the former Miss South Africa whose introduction to the world stage was the resolute assertion that Black girls belong everywhere. The conversation will take place on June 16 on the official Miss Universe Instagram.

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“Zozi is one of my heroes,” Patel says. “She is the woman that young Black women have been waiting to see in such a position. For the longest time anywhere, we have been defined by colonial [constructs] of what beauty should be. We see ourselves reflected in Zozi. We know we are beautiful and occupying every place. We can define ourselves without Eurocentric or patriarchal [definitions].”

Her other heroes are anti-apartheid Black Consciousness leader Steve Biko, and “definitely Zanyiwe Nomzamo Winifred Madikizela-Mandela”; the anti-apartheid stalwart who is a hero to many, especially Black women in South Africa. 

“Activism is playing such a big role in shaping the future. It’s giving young people and marginalised communities a voice to define their future,” Patel continues.

Fear Fokol , A war has been waged on women and children in Azania , who are the most unprotected people in Azania , the sooner society stops accepting injustices oppressed masses are faced with and starts making a change , the more we'll progress . Rape is inhumane and dehumanizing , No one deserves to be raped , and Rape is never the victims fault. We need to put in place justice systems that will defend and protect victims ,whereby perpetrators will be punished . If Democracy and Justice does not work for all and does not empower oppressed majorities its not real Democracy and Justice. #IamKhwezi #IamKhensani #IamKarabo #IamReeva #IamZolileKhumalo I am all the unsung women and children who were victims of this patriarchal world we live in . #Dros case Nicholas ninow is not psychologically I'll he is a rapist . The 6 year old will get justice !

A post shared by Zulaikha (زليخة) Patel. (@zulaikhapatel_) on

It’s a future where young people and marginalised communities are at the forefront of leadership, and sit at the decision-making table.

Patel adds: “It’s a future where we see gender equality, where collectively there are more women in seats of power, and education has been changed and redefined so that it provokes progressive learning. It’s a future where women don’t have to live in fear every single day, even within their homes as well.”