“The Young Get Stronger”

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.

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A Superhuman Struggle for Subhuman Rights

In its first years, The African National Congress modeled the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa after the Satyagraha campaign of non-violent civil disobedience which, guided by Mohandas Gandhi, led to India’s independence in the late 1940s.  This changed when the massacre in Sharpeville township on 21 March, 1960 and the subsequent banning of the African National Congress pushed Oliver Tambo, then Secretary General of the ANC, to flee into exile in London.  Only then did he call for the liberation of his people by any means necessary, “because the worst of all horrors in the world is to live forever as a slave, as a hated, despised, subhuman, and this we reject”.  In April of 1963, Tambo went to Moscow to seek aid from the Soviet Union.  In an ongoing campaign to gain aid and support from anywhere in the world that would lend an open hand, Tambo made it clear that the political identity of his allies against apartheid, be it Canada or the USSR, didn’t matter to him: “we go there not to be influenced but to be assisted.” At a time when Cold War tensions were high-strung and the struggle between the First World and the Second World was the backdrop of international relations, the governments of the United States and South Africa were on high alert. South Africa’s government released a propaganda film that made their resource-rich nation out to be a “treasurehouse to be guarded against Marxism”. It was a base excuse for the Apartheid regime to stay in power, but the United States and Great Britain would seemingly take any excuse to maintain stable trade relations with a major exporter, and the Cold War saw abusive governments in control of much of Africa, Latin America, and any country with a strong primary sector of its economy, so long as the government could provide political stability and thus reliable trade. A famous example is the 1954 CIA-led coup in Guatemala that disposed a democratically elected president who threatened monopolies of United States based fruit, electric, and transportation industries with plans to establish competing nationalized (read: communist) industries. A full account of this shameful chapter in history can be found on <http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB4/index.html&gt;

For a brief instant in the film, the camera focused on an illuminated pane of a stained glass window in a dark cathedral. The figure in the center of the glass circle–a saint, maybe, or an angel–held a sword in his right hand and a cross in his left. Glowing with sunlight, such an ornate remnant of a violent past could easily stir the historical memory of nearly twenty centuries of war and conquest that seemed so unholy in retrospect. The Church was not a stranger to war, but in modern times it purported to be an agent of peace and healing for the world. When the World Council of Churches met in 1969 to address the issue of racism worldwide, Christian delegates from various orthodoxies and denominations voted to support the African National Congress in order to alleviate the suffering of the non-white majority in South Africa. The Church of England decided not to add any money to the Council’s coffers for fear that money sent to provide humanitarian aid would instead be spent on weapons by the ANC, who Arthur Michael Ramsey, the Archbishop of Canterbury, called “terrorists”. Speaking of his faith, Oliver Tambo (who, according to the film, wanted to be a priest and could have been ordained) stated, “I’m not a Christian in the sense that I can tolerate exploitation and oppression and repression. I don’t believe in that kind of Christianity at all. I believe in a Christianity which defends justice.” He found a dedicated ally in father Trevor Huddleston, an Anglican priest who spoke passionately against the oppression he witnessed in the post-colonial world. Huddleston, who declared that “white supremacy is finished!” worked tirelessly towards that goal for three decades and saw the apartheid regime fall four years before his death in 1998. Commenting on those Christians who supported apartheid and those who were too complacent to speak or act against it, Huddleston concluded that they were “quite comfortable in the world as it was“. Complacency, to Huddleston, was a sin of omission: “Of course you’ve got to be involved in politics–Christ was a highly political figure.” Despite the attitudes of these followers of the faith and of church authorities like Ramsey, the anti-apartheid movement was supported by a broad base of Christians worldwide.

Dr. Mary Beth Gasman touched on some points that compared and contrasted the situation in South Africa to the racial situation in the United States. What stood out the most to me was when she brought up the point of racial dialogue in South Africa today. She said that race there is an issue that people want to bring to the forefront, unlike in the United States where the issue is largely ignored, one reason being that people in this country are afraid of being offensive or would rather talk about race in underhanded terms: pointing out the cultural traits that may largely pertain to a certain ethnic or racial group instead of actually mentioning said group. For the last few minutes of our discussion, she raised a question over speaking up when we encounter racist attitudes, behavior and rhetoric. An audience member raised the point that it would be difficult to confront one’s grandparents on such an issue, compared to a sibling or a friend. I think we all want to raise our voices when we encounter hatefulness and discrimination, and it seems to me that we all sometimes face within ourselves the same enemy of complacency that Huddleston faced in his world, and it is that sin of omission–turning our eyes away and keeping our mouths shut–that lets racism in our world live to stand another day.

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