The 1970s saw a huge shift in the age composition of the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. The tone of “The New Generation”, part three of the series “Have You Heard from Johannesburg?” gave me the impression that the older generation of black South Africa was weary from a lifetime cursed with a bitter combination of too much work and poverty. Towards the end of a losing battle, many of them were tired of fighting. It was up to the next generation to pick up arms and unite against their common oppressor. As apartheid was strengthening its grip on the majority, black South African youth didn’t need any outside motivation to began organizing their resistance: from within the student movement, the South African Student Organization rose to spearhead large-scale resistance among middle-, secondary-school and college students. It began in 1969, and was focused from its outset on development within black communities. According to the film, SASO established clinics that became community centers in townships with no basic infrastructure.
The film focuses on a township that became an epicenter of student protest. In 1974 students, many of whom lived in English-speaking areas, were compelled by the apartheid government to study in Afrikaans. This mandate was seen as a blatant act of discrimination because it prevented many black South Africans from receiving a quality education. According to the essay “Soweto Student Uprising” on Overcoming Apartheid, “…lacking fluency in Afrikaans, African teachers and pupils experienced first-hand the negative impact of the new policy in the classroom”. On June 16, 1976, two years after the law went into effect, students in Soweto walked out of their morning assemblies. It was a clandestinely coordinated act as most parents didn’t know what their children were planning. The essay reports that over 10,000 students gathered around “Orlando soccer stadium where a peaceful rally had been planned”. It goes on to report that, by the end of 1977, over three thousand people had died in “sporadic clashes between students and police”. Ironically, leaders of the African National Congress who had been in jail for a decade learned about the student uprisings only when students began to fill the prison cells.
To Steve Biko, “the biggest oppression is your own mental oppression”. He was a leader in a movement to break the bonds that were in place since colonialism, and he saw these bonds manifest themselves through social, economic, political and psychological oppression. Banned in 1973, he was only permitted to be in the company of one person at a time, with no exception for family members. Two months after the Soweto uprising, he was arrested for violating the banning order. During a brutal interrogation, a South African inquisitor cracked Biko’s skull and he fell unconscious. On September 12, 1977 Stephen Biko died naked in the back of a police van.
The footage and photographs presented in “The New Generation” of children–still babies in their mothers’ eyes–dead from police artillery and the images of Steve Biko’s lifeless body and bloated skull gave me a sick feeling of shame for my own species. I had assumed that growing up watching every Tarantino movie and over a dozen war films from Apocalypse Now to Schindler’s List, Hollywood would have jaded my conscious to on-screen violence by blurring the line between movie-magic and reality. That has not been the case for this documentary. I don’t understand how people can transform into monsters, but I’m seeing it with my own eyes and it’s disturbing as hell. The fist carved on the end of Steve Biko’s coffin was one of thousands that flashed on the screen during “The New Generation”. Despite the efforts of the apartheid government to squash the student rebellion, a movement had begun that would eventually fulfill Biko’s vision of liberation.