Striking Lonmin workers have a meeting on a hilltop at the Marikana informal settlement in the North-West province on Tuesday. Picture: THE TIMES
Picture: THE TIMES

RECENT images of angry black youth fighting the police in Marikana, De Doorns and Sasolburg, and perhaps in a host of other places we haven’t yet heard of, are eerily similar to what South Africa experienced in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

The birth of the new South Africa was a bloody affair, and young black men in particular were at the receiving end of state violence.

Nearly 20 years after South Africa buried apartheid, the face of anger and desperation is once again largely that of the young black man. He leads the daily service delivery protests, some of which descend into looting and criminal behaviour, only partly inspired by competing political factions.

The South African protester may be a miner or a farm worker. More often than not he is a young man with no job, who lives in a shack, has little education and no marketable skills and, crucially, is excluded from the social grant system. The police target him with assault rifles and sometimes his lifeless body ends up in the back of a van or in the street. He is stripped of dignity in life and in death. Yet all he wants is a job and a decent life.

Could this be a case of history repeating itself?

The final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission tells a story of many young lives crushed during South Africa’s internal conflict. Those who survived were called a "lost generation".

Are we about to face the same thing — only this time without the political focus that brought us onto the streets 20 and 30 years ago?

I canvassed the views of some former leaders of this "lost generation" about the recent riots and their views about the future. They are all black men. Some were in the "self-defence units" and the broader youth movement. Today they are leaders in business and the public sector, they remain active citizens in their professional and personal capacities and may well shoulder broader leadership responsibilities in the years ahead.

Lincoln Mali, former leader of the South African Students Congress (Sasco) and now a director at Standard Bank, sees his past life in the hopelessness faced by many young people today.

"At just 18, I had been expelled from school, had been to jail twice, had attempted to skip the country to go into exile, was on the run from the police…. I was not alone; we were an army of angry and disillusioned young people, determined to make SA ungovernable and the apartheid system unworkable," he writes.

I asked Robinson Ramaite, former president of Sasco and now chairman of the Simeka Group, if he thought the recent riots were a precursor to our own "Arab Spring". He says it is unlikely but emphasises the need to make progress in education and expand the black middle class. He worries about corruption and is "increasingly getting anxious about the lack of effective political competition and the degeneration of public institutions".

Phenyane Sedibe, a former Sasco leader and now a member of Eskom’s board, says young people’s hopes depend on a competent state, investment in education and a deepening democracy.

All these men are in positions of influence today, which helps them do their little bit, because they worked hard and the country gave them a chance.

The economy was expanding, the state’s transformation programme — as imperfect as it was — was moving ahead, democratic institutions were being strengthened and efforts to promote social cohesion were part of the national conversation.

This helped thousands of us avoid becoming a part of the "lost generation".

So when we see young black men running from the police, we are deeply troubled. Because not long ago, that was us. And then, as now, the solution does not lie in sending in the shock troops.

Building South Africa is about many things — freedom, accountability, economic growth and all the rest.

But we will fail unless we put the plight of young black men — and women — at the centre. The National Development Plan is a good start. It also requires thousands of us who avoided the trap of the "lost generation" to step up to the plate.

Morudu writes from Cape Town.