June is South Africa’s cue to trot out tributes to the contribution young people have made to our liberation. With practised ease we hail the valour of the youth of yesterday. And with hearts anxious about the politics of the present, we point to young people as the leaders of another day.

And yet, young people are not the future. They are not tomorrow’s leaders. They are not the concern of some other time and place. They are not the burden one day must carry for another. They are here, right now, learning to be.

It is beautiful to watch young people fulfilling their potential. But it is just as often heart-wrenching to watch them fall short of what they could be. And it’s rarely their fault.

In a world so bereft of hope, love, and understanding, it is young people who must breach the limits of our reality. It is young people who must struggle to be great, to be free, to laugh, to love — to live.

The youth are our unbridled potential for greatness. In a world broken by greed, selfishness, and bigotry, it is young people who become our last defence against surrender. They are our immediate reminder that a more whole world is possible, that it can still be achieved.

And it is for them, those who inherit the bits and pieces we leave behind, that we must ensure that we hold fast on to hope, because, far too often, this is no country for the young.

The lightness of their being is snuffed out by the heaviness of our history. The stars in their eyes are extinguished by the scarcity of opportunities. Their space among us is cramped. They must learn to see where there is little light.

And still they lead us. It is young people who show us that apathy is criminal when injustice is “normal”. They show us that even where generations before them have failed, they will try, and try again to be great in themselves, and somehow make the world a great place for all who live in it.

We have chosen these 200 young South Africans for their feats of brilliance as individuals, yes, but we have also chosen these wonderfully talented, resourceful, caring people because they remind us that all is not lost. They remind us that the pursuit of a better world is never in vain. Mostly, these young people remind us that we are not so alone in the world.

They remind us that it does take a village to raise a child, and together we are raise villages. It is young people who remind us that we are, because they are.

Young people are tinder for the fires of hope too often smothered within us. They show us every day what it means to be. They remind us that the flame of hope is kindled in a moment. Long may these fires burn.

Khadija Patel

Editor-in-chief, The Mail & Guardian