Parow teenager Yaseen Valley, 17, is a born-free, but the echoes of South Africa’s apartheid past strike chords in his own life today.
Yaseen lives more than 40 years after the youth uprisings of 1976 that helped to turn the tide against apartheid and which today are commemorated in the Youth Day holiday on June 16, but there are reminders that the pain from that time is never far away.
The JG Meiring High School pupil was born seven years after the country’s first democratic elections, and while for him being “born free” means not having to deal with the sort of trauma his family faced under apartheid, the scars are apparent enough – he sees them in his 73-year-old grandmother, Fouzia, who tells him of her hardships living in District Six in the 1960s.
“She acknowledges the horror of the past. She saw a lot of discrimination around her but felt helpless at times,” says Yaseen, who dreams of studying a BCom marketing degree when he leaves school.
Yaseen says apartheid may be gone, but “racism is still alive” although it wears a different guise to the form it took when it was state policy.
“It takes subtle forms like people rolling their eyes or being dismissive to people of other races,” he says.
Yaseen was born at a time when Nelson Mandela was hailed a heroic stateman, iconic images of him published around the world, not when he was branded a terrorist and imprisoned on Robben Island, images of him then were banned. Yaseen marvels at how Mandela emerged from prison after 27 years, and, far from being a broken man, was ready to build a nation.
“He is a man who made a big difference in this world. He was gentle and kind even though he spent 27 years of his life in prison. He changed the world and tried to unite the races.”
The success of the work done by Mandela and others who sacrificed all during the struggle to tear down apartheid seems evident in Yaseen’s sentiment that the very idea that the law once oppressed people and kept them separate on the basis of their skin colour feels alien to him.
“Apartheid feels strange to me. I can’t fathom not being able to be friends, with my Xhosa friend. It feels weird to me.”
Music is a big part of Yaseen’s life, and in May, his school choir, Voce Armoniche, won gold at the Tygerberg International Eisteddfod.
“We pushed through, and our hard work paid off. Our choir teacher is mezzo-soprano, Christine Bam, and she is amazing. In April we also had the pleasure of performing alongside a choir from Springbok at the Taal Monument.”
Yaseen attributes his joy of singing to his late father who used to take him along to Malay choir practices.
“He played the guitar and drums. He passed away in a motorbike accident several years ago, and when I sing, I feel closer to him. I miss those times when we as a family would sing in the car and around campfires.”
Music has been a healing presence in his life, he says.
“Music has done a lot for my life. My best friend and I have this special song that we sing before going out, and when we are out, we always have positive experiences.”
Yaseen says South Africa may have its problems — including the water and electricity crises, high inflation and unemployment — but he has hope for the future.
“In the future, I want us to be one of the top 10 countries in the world. I also want our currency to become stronger. We certainly need an overall improvement in the various sectors of our government.”
He says the youth of today should “live in the moment” and be able to “think on their feet” and be “solutions based”.