University of Cambridge > > Centre of African Studies Michaelmas Seminars > Youth and generational conflict in South African historiography

Youth and generational conflict in South African historiography

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In recent years ‘the youth’ – whether through mounting concerns over mass unemployment, elaborate 40th anniversary commemorations of the June 1976 uprising, the rise of the Economic Freedom Fighters or the 2015-2016 university rebellions – have captured (or perhaps recaptured) public attention in South Africa. Nevertheless, local political commentators and the media have given little thought into the meaning of youth or its significance historically. It is therefore an appropriate moment to reflect on the substantial South African historiography on youth and generational conflict in an attempt to understand our current conjuncture more effectively. I will make two key points in this paper. First, far from being a recent development, generational tension has been a continuous feature of Southern African history since at least the late nineteenth century. Second, organised political mobilisation is not the way this tension usually manifests itself. Mass youth politics is a specific phenomenon, which needs to be explained historically rather than assumed. I will focus on three historical examples to illustrate this: early migrant labour in South Africa, the formation of urban youth gangs, and the sustained youth uprising from 1976 until the early 1990s. I will conclude with a tentative attempt to draw some parallels between that phase of rebellion and recent student upheavals.

This talk is part of the Centre of African Studies Michaelmas Seminars series.

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