Nthabiseng Tooka, essay winner of the Student Leadership Summit, says the youth of today do not have an understanding of the power that lies within a vision: the power they possess through voting

In 1996, our democracy was two years old; I was seven years old and was in my first grade at school. I lived in a small rural village: Lepheng, in Hammanskraal. Every morning on school days, I woke up at 4:00 to get ready for the 5:00 bus, which took me to school in Pretoria. In my village, we did not have tarred roads or drains, so in the summertime when it rained my mother would wrap  my school bag in plastic, we both wore raincoats, she would put me on her back and tell me to hold on tight, because she had to hold the umbrella with the one hand. If I missed that 5:00 bus, I would also miss school for that day, so my mother made sure that we were at the bus stop on time every morning. I don’t remember ever missing the bus.

In winter, I hated going to school because the trip to the bus stop was cold and very dark. We didn’t have street lights and my mother had to carry a knife in her pocket in case we encountered any danger. I thank God that we never did. When I got to school, I forgot about all this because the environment was an extreme contrast to where I came from. It was a Catholic private school: I was taught by nuns, my classmates were of mixed race, and we were only 15 in a class. We had ham and cheese sandwiches and fruit for lunch, we played on the jungle gym at the break, and we had all the necessary materials we needed to study.

On my first day at school, the bus left me in the afternoon. I was the only child left at school at that time and although I was with the nun, I wept because I couldn’t understand why I lived so far from school whilst my schoolmates walked home and some were even fetched by their parents in cars. I wept because I knew that where I came from there were no telephones, so there was no way of letting my mother who was in the village know that the bus had left me.

Every day when I got off the bus at 17:00 in my village, I was reminded of the extreme contrasts of the two worlds I lived in. I stepped into a world where children my age had to wait in line to fill their 20-litre bottles with water at the only tap we had in the village and roll those bottles home. They had to make fires to cook supper. There no was electricity in my village, they washed their school tunics and one pair of socks every day because those were the only ones they had. I couldn’t understand this, as the only chore I had was to polish my school shoes and do my homework.

My mother was an educator at one of the schools in my village, so when we had a mid-term break at my school, I went to work with her. Once again, I was confronted with the extremes. Unlike me, at lunch time some of the kids did not have anything to eat, while others maybe had pieces of bread and water. They were 50 in one class, and this devastated me. They played on dusty and eroded school grounds with a ball they had made with pieces of plastic.

I remember one day, the Minister of Education, Kader Asmal, came to our school. I was so excited and couldn’t wait to tell my friends in the village about this. To my disappointment, they did not know what a minister was, never mind who he was.

I wanted to share with my mates the world I escaped to during the day; I wanted them to read the things I read, to read as fluently as I did and, most importantly, to dream as big as I did. In my other world at school, there was the hope of a better nation, I was allowed, taught and even encouraged to look and dream beyond the impoverished village I came from.

Standing on trial, Nelson Mandela stated: ‘I have done whatever I did both as an individual and as a leader of my people, because of my experience in South Africa and my own proudly felt African background, and not because of what any outsider might have said.’ This made me realise that we all carry the responsibility to show an interest in the leadership of our country and to contribute to the direction of this nation, and we can make this contribution by voting. I also believe our own deeds ought to be that which sets an example and incites others to dream big and to visualise a brighter nation.

You see, I have never inhaled teargas, and I do not know what a rubber bullet on my flesh feels like, but I understand what it was that challenged the youth of ’76 to take up the responsibility of changing the lives of their people. They were not emancipated but they had hopes, experiences, a vision that fuelled them. The youth of today are suffering from a lack of vision and tenacity to realise that vision. It is this lack that has resulted in seeing voting as insignificant among the youth. We cannot blame the youth of yesterday (our parents) because each one of them placed their hopes and vision in the one vote that they each made on 27 April 1994. The youth of today do not have an understanding of the power that lies within a vision, the power they possess through voting. They do not understand that in order to build a dynasty, to leave a legacy, to impact a system, to serve their generation, to affect and lay a foundation for the coming generations, they need to become purpose driven visionaries just as the youth of yesterday were. Even though we did not experience apartheid, some of us come from those dusty, poverty-stricken villages, and it is those unique experiences that should incite action within us all. The suggestion made that we need to blame someone for our lack and inaction is false.

The hope and vision of all those who fought and died in order to shape the destiny of this generation is the same vision and the experience of my early village life that charged me on 7 May 2014 to cast my vote so that I can affect coming generations. It should also be this very vision that propels the youth of today to exercise our power to lay firm foundations for those who are still coming after us. We exercise this power and fuel our hopes and vision by voting. This vision of a future South Africa should be painted so clearly inside all of us that it fuels our passion for change – change that will come about when we vote.

Author: Nthabiseng Tooka is in her final Bcompt (Accounting Sciences) year at the University of South Africa