The year was 1976. The month was June. The day was the 16th. The township was Soweto. The City was Johannesburg. The country was South Africa. The cause was freedom.
More than four decades ago, young people marched and died for “Uhuru” (freedom) in South Africa. Looking back at this anniversary is a reminder of what happens when the barefoot and shirtless people of the world say “Enough!” During the “Soweto Uprising,” as it was called, thousands were wounded and hundreds were killed. Many of those deceased young people’s futures had already been predetermined by an evil Apartheid system.
Looking back at that incredible anti-Apartheid movement, names like Nelson Mandela, Steve Biko, Winnie Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu became household names. Yet, it was the young people on that day whose blood was spilled. Young people, who had been trampled by an evil and cruel system. Young people, who looked their elders in the eyes on that day and said, “No more.” These brave foot soldiers, many who would not even be a footnote in history, decided that there was something worth dying for. On this anniversary, I pause to remember them.
Years later, following the Soweto Uprising, I visited the Republic of South Africa. I was on the Annapolis City Council in 1987, and South Africa was still under the iron foot of Apartheid. I met some courageous young black people on that occasion. I instantly noticed how their attitudes were so different from many of their elders. They had an impatience with an illicit system that literally determined where they would be born, be schooled, work, live and die. I saw in them a fire that was contagious. As a member of the City Council, when I returned to America, I fought for and had passed a disinvestment law, which prohibited the city of Annapolis from investing any of its funds in companies, banks and institutions that did business with that then racist government.
There is a scene I want to share with you that occurred when I was in Soweto. I had arranged to meet with student activists while there.They were delighted to meet a black American. We spent a lot of time talking about America and South Africa. As many political observers and commentators had done, they compared South Africa’s Apartheid government with America’s legal segregation system. The parallels were undeniable.
As I listened to these students talk about their struggle for “Uhuru,” one of them shared with us how his brother died during the Soweto uprising. He told us, in a matter-of-fact way, that he, too, would be giving his life for freedom. He was no more than 16-years-old. He talked about life and death issues like one might discuss a basketball or baseball game. He told his attentive late night audience that he was willing and ready to give his life for the “movement”.
I am student of history. I remember once reading about a young American revolutionary by the name of Nathan Hale, who was a spy that the British had sentenced to death. Prior to his execution, he was allowed to make final comments and it is alleged that he said, ” I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.”
As I looked at this young black South African, who had already determined that the price of freedom was death, I knew that it was not a question of whether South Africa would be free, but, only when. There is something about young people that leaves one ever mindful that they are the future.
On this day, I wanted to pause and thank the nondescript young people of South Africa who looked their elders in the eyes and by extension their oppressors and said, “Enough!”
May their courage and determination be an inspiration for the oppressed all over the world. May the world never forget those young people who died on this day. May those who seek “Uhuru” know that Steve Biko was right: “The most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.” When the oppressed decides “Enough,” the oppressors’ days are numbered.
Long live the spirit of the youth of South Africa, who gave all oppressed people a new day!
A Luta Continua.
Carl Snowden is a political and civil rights leader in Annapolis.
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