I had the honour of delivering the Valedictory speech for the Class of 2018 yesterday, a few days after our school’s 85th birthday. Here’s what I said:
Good morning, everyone, and a special welcome to the Class of 2018. Yes, it’s 2018, and we are about to send this brilliant bunch of young women out into the arena. Stated differently, this is a reaping and we have chosen the bright young class of 2018 as tributes in The Hunger Games.
You see, this generation is not known as Generation K for nothing. K is for Katniss Everdeen, heroine of Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games series. According to Noreena Hertz, who coined the term, the world you occupy is harsh and confusing, not unlike a dystopian novel. You are surrounded by tremendous inequalities and injustices. It is so painfully obvious to you what is right and what is wrong, but somehow injustice and evil seem to prevail. Generation K is coming of age in the shadow of economic decline, job insecurity and increasing inequality. Further to that, the likes of Donald Trump and Brett Kavanaugh occupy in incredibly powerful seats, despite the obviousness to most of us that they are really not suited to those positions. These men are the President Snows of our world: corrupt and without conscience but incredibly powerful.
Issues which worry you are water and food security, climate change, massive scale pollution of the oceans, a lack of accountability of governments and a dearth of positive leadership the world over. And what the wifi code is. Smart phones mean that you can watch the beheading of a journalist in real time. You’ve grown up in a time when terrorists think nothing of planting a bomb at a pop concert attended by teenaged fans and where my generation’s favourite screen dad, Bill Cosby, has been sent to jail for the sexual abuse of multiple women. This is nothing short of a dysfunctional society and authors like Suzanne Collins attempt to warn us about where we are is headed if we continue on this path.
A number of times this year, I have found myself saying, “It’s 2018! Are we really still doing this?” How can there still be mass shootings in American schools? Why is the abuse of women at an all-time high in South Africa? Why are people still posting stupid things on social media? Why are we still producing plastics and polluting the planet with them at an alarming rate? Why are there still people living on the street while countless houses stand empty for up to 11 months a year? Why do children still drown in pit latrines? Why do we still need to remind people that Black Lives Matter and that it’s okay to love whoever you love? It’s 2018, for heaven’s sake!
In addition, there is so much perceived pressure on you to achieve more than your best. Granted, some of this pressure is self-imposed – Matric really is not a life or death situation like the Hunger Games, after all! I know that some of your parents place tremendous pressure on you to do better than your best. I know at least one parent in this hall who believes that anything under 70% is a fail. It’s little wonder that the kids of today are plagued by crippling anxiety. There is much to be anxious about!
But it’s not all negative. Noreena Herz says Generation K is: “Selfie-taking yet unselfish, connected yet lonely, anxious yet pragmatic, risk-averse yet entrepreneurial … a generation very different from those that preceded them. They know this already, and they’ve got the cotton candy frappuccinos to prove it.” Generation K is hyper-connected. You are able to multi-task on various screens, you care deeply for the environment and for people, and you support many causes. Like Katniss and like me, you have a propensity for the underdog. You have a tremendous wokeness – you understand why Fees Must Fall, you support the LGBTQI+ community, you are well-versed in mental health awareness and you understand why hair is a political issue.
Forgive your parents and teachers if they have not yet woken up, like you. They are a product of their parents’ belief systems and their times. It’s quite right for you to rebel against that – I mean, we have left the world in a truly shocking state for you to inherit… a world of state capture, a Texan-sized plastic island in the ocean and carbon emissions gone mad. We leave you with a world where the threat of nuclear war is not some archaic throwback to the 1980s; a world where the most powerful man on the planet doesn’t believe in climate change and thinks it’s a dangerous time in the world to be a man! A world where the propaganda machine is not broadcast over radios and televisions, but rather directly to the palm of your hand.
You have very strong inbuilt radars which pick up on authenticity. You can spot a phony a mile away. You are not fooled by people trying to schmooze you. You weren’t fooled by Pepsi’s Kendall Jenner ad. But you did appreciate Nike’s effort with their recent Caster Semenya and Colin Kaepernick ads. I remind you not to be brainwashed by this though. Nike might be tapping into the popular discourse, but they are still a multi-billion dollar organisation who are trying to sell you products.
Watch out for people trying to hijack your brain like the Capitol did with Peeta Mellark. You live in the “Post Truth” era, where fake news is abundant and often shared by those who mean well but don’t know any better. Echo chambers operate on social media so that we just keep seeing things that support our world view. Click bait distracts us from the important things. Major events like the World Cup, the Winter Olympic Games and the Royal Wedding in May, which was watched by a staggering 1.9 billion people, help us to forget that this year, we wiped out the Northern White Rhinoceros, or the fact that large corporations are draining our natural resources (like water) and selling them back to us at a premium, causing droughts and other environmental hazards. It’s not surprising that your generation has a severe distrust of traditional institutions like governments and large corporations.
I’d like to think that the K in Generation K also stands for Kingsmead, your home for the last 3 – 15 years. I think many younger grades will agree that the past few weeks have felt like the Hunger Games at school: tributes from Grade 9 and 10 have found themselves tied to each other and to poles or benches, water weapons have been blazoned boldly, and outfits surely only seen in the Capitol have been on display.
I hope that Kingsmead has given you the education you need to be critical thinkers, to make informed decisions. Katniss suggests that “Stupid people are dangerous”. I don’t believe that any of you fall into that category. But sometimes you will think you are fighting for a cause which wants to end suffering and inhumanity only to discover that President Coin has become just as bad as President Snow. What will you choose to do in those situations? Will you remember the values that this fine institution has instilled in you?
It’s 2018, and yet another disturbed kid walked into an American school and tore up his classmates and teachers with an assault rifle. But unlike the depressingly many other incidents of this nature, Generation K students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School decided that their generation could not rely on the adults to solve the problems that face American school children – they organised a massive protest. Thanks to their creativity and social media savvy, the “March for Our Lives” which took place on March 24th had participants in over900 cities internationally. Those students have petitioned governors all over America to reform gun laws and they are seeing results. They have defied the criticism of the greedy dinosaurs who benefit from the current system and they continue to rally support. This is the kind of activism we have come to expect from Generation K.
This year of social revolution has largely been led by women and children. Think about the #metoo campaign, which has sparked much public debate about sexual assault, sexual harassment, and consent. Locally, we participated in the Total Shutdown of 1stAugust, organised by women who have had enough of the horror stories of rape and abuse of women and children in this country. I was so proud of the Kingsmeadians who realised that even if this doesn’t impact on us directly, an offence to one is an offence to all. Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu, after all.
Generation K is profoundly aware of the luck and the privileges which landed you where you are and also that the best way to help someone is not by giving them a handout but rather a hand up. How will you use your privileges and advantages to make the world a better place? You do, of course, come from one of the most prestigious districts in Panem – District K. How will you harness your privilege, your generosity, your connectedness and your creativity to fix this mess?
As Em Clem reminded us so beautifully, our great founder, DV Thompson wrote in 1944, “Those who have gone before you have left you a legacy. See that you increase its value”. I could rattle off examples of amazing past tributes from District K who are making their mark on the world, some of whom have their names plastered on the walls of this hall, but many others whose impact only started to be felt after they left school. I could give you scores of examples of celebrities who are using their fame and wealth to improve the lives of so many. But I know that you know all these and more – you’ve probably googled them on your watches while I speak.
What you do need to hear though, is that it’s important for you to do what you’re good at and to do what you love. Katniss didn’t choose the most obviously powerful weapons like axes or swords – she chose the simple bow and arrow, because she knew how to work it well. Using your unique talents and doing what you love (not what your parents think you should do) is what will enrich your life and in enriching you, it will give you the opportunity to change the world.
It would be remiss of me not to mention the wonderful team which dressed you and coached you in preparation for the Hunger Games. Apart all your subject teachers throughout your school career, I must point out a few special sponsors along the way: Ms Banwa, your Gr 8 coordinator, who had to lock you out of your locker room because you left it looking like there had been an explosion in a coal factory! Madame Harding, in Gr 9, who constantly had to call in tributes for asserting themselves a little too powerfully over other trainees. In Gr 10 + 11, Ms Viv, Ms de Villiers, Mrs Martin, Ms Jonker, Mr Govender, Ms Philipopolous, Mev. Lawrenson and Mev. Clarke all added their own skills and personalities to help mould you into the fine young tributes which this district is proud to send into the arena.
This year, the House parents, Mr Allen and Ms Roberts and the late, great Ms Isack, were a tremendous support to the girls and to me. Ms Isack’s death could have defeated so many of us but she had fostered something so great in all of us – a determination to persevere under the most difficult of circumstances, an inherent celebration of individuality and a deep sense of loyalty to this District. We will never forget her. (3 fingered salute)
If we have learnt anything this year, it is how to stand up to injustice with dignity, like our amazing head girl, Husnaa. It’s how to handle grief with grace, like so many of our girls have after suffering heart-breaking losses. It’s how to stand up for our fellow tributes instead of becoming part of the killing machine – forming life-long alliances which have the potential to change the world, instead of becoming victims of the mutts. We have learnt that fun is never malicious, and the class of 2018 has a limitless well of fun to tap into. We have seen that Generation K is going to blow up the arena forcefield with their unique talents, intelligences, leadership skills, entrepreneurship, care, respect for diversity and their capacity to love. I hope that you realise that you are enough. You are so incredibly enough.
The world is desperately in need of a revolution. If you, my babies, decide to be the Mockingjay, I will follow, without any shadow of a doubt, where ever Generation K chooses to lead. I will even join Rachel’s Cornucopia!
Farewell to the magnificent class of 2018. Let the 85th Hunger Games begin. And may the odds be ever in your favour!