October 22, 2020

“Our work, our research and our actions matter!” Shakira Choonara’s keynote address at JuPHASA conference

A very good morning young researchers, practitioners and activists! Given the extremely difficult circumstances which I grew up under, I would never have imagined standing here today opening this exciting Junior Public Health Association of South Africa (JuPHASA), 2016 conference! For those on twitter, #juphasa16! I am extremely humbled and privileged to be delivering this keynote address to a youthful, energetic and dynamic audience.

Youth Accountability & Inclusivity – Breaking Down the Barriers

On this occasion, I must congratulate the JuPHASA team in conjunction with its partners, for bringing young people together, to discuss their innovative research related to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)! Last year, the SDGs were adopted on 25th of September 2015, which will make next week, exactly one year into the implementation of the SDGs! This certainly keeps me up at night, I am impatient to achieve change –by the time the SDGs expire, in 2030, I will be forty years old, and as a young individual I need to hold not only the world but myself accountable to what has and has not been achieved! Together we as young people sitting in this room and beyond, need to start questioning, that why is it that the world and South Africa (SA) has not seen the change that it desperately needs! We need to question, why have there been so many generations of young people in this world, brilliant research being conducted yet ineffective health systems continue to exist? We need to ask the difficult question of what is it that we hope to achieve as young people by 2030?

It is extremely easy for us in our settings, to follow the rhetoric, criticise world leaders and our seniors, yet it is dangerously possible that we will become these very leaders or seniors in 2030! Will we complete our research degrees with little impact on the people who matter? Will we follow power, prestige and white collar jobs ignoring the glaring inequality that the world faces? Will we speak out against the very structures and bureaucracies which aren’t accessible to the young people– will we then enter these state or global institutions to receive a salary? Or will we start speaking out and breaking down the very barriers which constrain us!

Even in this conference, and in every other gathering we attend, we need to question, why are young individuals and leaders not at the forefront of key discussions and decision-making? There is a broader debate to which other young individuals have already contributed to, Rachel Caesar (a young anthropologist at the University of the Witwatersrand) and Marion Osieyo (a fellow European Union Young Leader) we need to start questioning and speaking out against the purpose and impacts of junior conferences and pre-conferences if the seniors, decision-makers and government officials are not in the room! We need to demand answers around why young people are not being included in “grown-up”, “adult” and “experienced” main conference discussions. Several key organisations around the world seem to have a checkbox, where they have this false notion that it is okay to include one or two youth representatives, it is as if they tick a check box of “youth representation” (check), “capacity development”, (check)! Recently in an interview with Youth for Change, an NGO in Tanzania, I recounted my experience of visiting the United Nations (UN) last year; of course attending the SDG Summit was a great experience. However we as the youth, extremely talented, skilled, qualified individuals and change-makers left our hotel rooms close to 3am in the morning to be briefed before the summit (5am) on how to hold a lantern up, when our so-called “youth representative” Malala Yousafzai was given just a total of two minutes to address the UN General Assembly! That’s exactly, what close to 160 young people were told to do! Now I’m not sure which youth were at the centre of the SDGs, but it definitely wasn’t those of us attending the Summit!

Why the SDGs?

This then brings me to the question, why are the SDGs the centre of our development, our research and our work? If this is how global institutions operate, with the power field still not being level between countries, between continents or for the youth, why have our countries and our governments adopted it? In the African context, Agenda 2063 is relatively unknown, yet it is just one example which fails to be the centre of development! Agenda 2063 details –

 Aspiration 3: an Africa of good governance, democracy, respect for human rights, justice and rule of law!

 Aspiration 4: a peaceful and secure Africa.

 Aspiration 6: an Africa where development is people-driven, unleashing the potential of its women and youth!

These are some issues which speak to the root causes of issues we face on the continent! We are marred by unjust wars and corruption which is rife in our context, yet development goals which are relevant to our agenda are unknown and neglected in our development discussions! Moreover, the African Union (AU) remains as inaccessible to us as the UN! In fact, the AU falls short in including young people in its key discussions- I plead with the AU, draw on our zest for life and our expertise now, instead of waiting for 2063, we may have a very different and vibrant union and continent! Moving closer to home, how many youth have you seen involved in Department of Health (DoH) key policy discussions, debates, or decision-making, how many young people do you see taking up key management or leadership positions in the department. Our own (DoH) is another institution which discusses youth but fails to include us! At this point, I must commend Megan Harker Elliot from the People’s Health Movement of South Africa who collaborated with JuPHASA youth in putting together a youth response to the National Health Insurance in SA, #ynhi! It is precisely these sorts of efforts which will propel youth voices in broader national debates! No patient is waiting for our research to be published but is waiting in a dirty hospital, with bad staff attitudes and long lines; we must take action against this reality as we did with #ynhi!

Perhaps it is not important which development agenda you choose to follow, or if we even have a well-crafted development agenda, but it is our work, our research and our actions which matter.  It is about how we as the present generation, will actually turn around our public health system! I have no doubt that if we harness the power and enthusiasm that exists is in this room, and at this conference we will be able to unite and turn towards implementation! We must work towards a collective youth effort instead of a fragmented one! It is about time that we drive action, hold ourselves accountable –what are we doing to ensure that facilities are clean, accessible, that our health workforce is happy, that we have the necessary equipment, and that 36 mental health patients in Gauteng should never again die in our country’s history, only then will we have succeeded! It is this reality which we must keep in mind and in all that we do.

During this conference I urge you to have critical and honest discussions amongst yourselves about our public healthcare system in the country and the associated development agenda! During the conference do not wait to be engaged, but track down and engage the seniors and prominent individuals! What will make us stand out against previous generations is that we drive change, is that we bring actual and concrete solutions to the table!  I wish you all the best for your presentations and I hope you will have a truly energising conference, with ideas, innovations and networks to take forward!

I thank you!

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