Where were you on June 16th? (Youth Day reflections part 1)

I realized something today. 50% of South Africa’s population is under the age of 19. 70% is under the age of 35. Anyway you slice this, the majority of people in South Africa have not lived through apartheid. And most of the people who did live through apartheid are my parent’s age or older. They were teenagers during the late 70’s and 80’s.

I was thinking of this, because I attended a book launch last week for Glenn Moss’s new book “The New Radicals, a generational memoir” at my university campus. I read the book in about 3 days. Moss was a white guy who was part of the new student protests happening at (basically white) university campuses across South Africa in the 70s. This was the Steve Biko generation, when Black Consciousness challenged the liberal ideas of gradual change and paternalistic multi-cultural organizations. Moss ended up being detained without trial for months, and then finally tried along with some other NUSAS leaders. Reading his recounting of the time challenged some of my assumptions about those years.

It challenged the story that I’ve been told my whole life by teachers and the parents of friends:

“We just didn’t know.”

I believed that story. When you see the lengths the government went to repress information, the propaganda that was being spread, the insulated channels of knowledge transmission, the tight segregation that kept people from actually ever knowing someone of a different race–I can believe it. I understand.

I believe it because it still happens: there are people in my community now that genuinely don’t know how 80% of South Africans live. There are people who make sincere comments like, “I hate travelling to Capetown by car, because we have to go through those really run-down poor, black areas.” (Um, forgetting that’s like, you know, the whole of South Africa). But it’s sincere. I can’t really blame them. Their life has been lived in a bubble. Can you be held accountable for what you literally don’t know?


And then I read about the campaigns in the 70’s going on at Wits university. About the alternative student newspaper being circulated with reports about living conditions in townships and “homelands”. I read about demonstrations and anti-apartheid lectures with hundreds and even thousands of students. I read about a Wits medical student being killed in detention (while he was being interrogated before being tried with anything), and the front page news story this created, and the massive protest it sparked. I read about the sit-ins by university students at the Anglo-American mining headquarters in outcry against the shooting of over a dozen miners, and the poor wages of workers. I read about pamphlets, about first-year student welcome speeches, about campaigns to educate people on the history that had been repressed.

And I think–maybe this author is inflating the reach of their activities—but these things did not happen in a corner.

One the one hand, this information is liberating. I want to hear more stories like this. Not because I want everyone to think that it was the white student activists who were willing to be detained without trial, or who were assassinated by the security police, or who went and joined the MK freedom fighters who were the ones that liberated this country. Because they didn’t. They were a small, small minority.

But I’ve got to live in this skin, in this country. And I want to know that there were some folks who looked like me, who didn’t just go along with the system. I want to be okay living in this skin and saying, “Yes, I’m a white South African, but I’m not just part of a group that oppressed and ignored and exploited all through history. I’m part of a group that had some people who fought for justice as well.” I don’t want to have to disown my skin (I can’t, really, even as much as I may want to), so I want to redeem it.

On the other hand, this information is crushing. Because I can’t just believe the story, “We didn’t know” anymore.

Where were you?

A famous image of Hector Pieterson shot down by security police in the 1976 Soweto student protests
A famous image of Hector Pieterson shot down by security police in the 1976 Soweto student protests

You might have been ignorant. You might not have known. But you didn’t know because you didn’t want to know. You didn’t know because you purposefully avoided lectures by “radical” weirdos, you didn’t pick up any pamphlet handed out, you blocked your ears to protest songs, you turned your eyes away when you drove past townships, you dismissed anything that was different as evil. You didn’t know because you chose not to know.

But I want to hear that story, too. I want to hear it, because that’s also part of redeeming this white skin I’ve got to live with. I don’t’ want just hear about pranks in university, or the crazy Sargent you had when you were called up for armed forces training, with anything political conveniently screened out. I always thought apartheid never came up because you didn’t really “feel” it, because you were so isolated. But maybe you weren’t so isolated. Or maybe you created your own isolation.

I want to hear my friends parents say, “Yes, I was a student and I heard about these protests, but I was self-centered. I was more interested in flirting with the cute guy in my Maths lectures and saving up money for my Capetown holiday, and trying to pass my exams than taking the time to figure out what everyone was making a fuss about.

And I was afraid. I didn’t know what the end of apartheid would bring. I thought maybe the country would end in chaos, so I didn’t take the radical student’s arguments seriously. On June 16th, 1976, when Soweto highschool students were shot down in the streets, when Wits students went to protest and join them, I sat in my room and worked on homework. I didn’t understand what was going on around me.

And I didn’t stand up against the injustice.

But I should have.

And you should.

Even though I didn’t stand up to injustice then, our family is going to be known for doing that now. We’re going to keep our minds and ears open. We’re going to make space in our lives to be uncomfortable, to learn things we might not want to know, to listen to what life is like for people that society doesn’t privilege, because of the way they look, or their income level, or their sexual orientation, or their living conditions, or their language.”

Please, please, tell me that story. I need that story, too.

I don’t want to sound judgmental (but I also think judgment is not an all-bad thing). One day we’ll all be judged, if not by our children then by God himself. I know one day my kids will ask me where I was on a certain day in history. Maybe they’ll ask why I wasn’t out protesting the Marikana shootings, or handing out food at the platinum mine strike, or petitioning government to pressurize Uganda to change their anti-gay laws, or something that looking back will seem so obviously unjust to them.

And I hope, I hope, I’ll have the courage to say, “Yes, I didn’t do anything and I was wrong, and we’re going to be different.”

I don’t want to fall into the trap of structuring my life so that I don’t have to know.

And I want the courage of a previous generation.

Not just the courage of the students that took to the streets of Soweto to protest apartheid.

Not just the courage of the white university students who left the status-quo.

But also the courage of those who sat quietly and didn’t do anything at the time, but acknowledge their blindness and are living different lives because of it today.

So, where were you June 16th, 1976? Do you have a story to share?


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