June 16 — Youth Day in South Africa — commemorates the day in 1976 when black youth in Soweto rose up against the apartheid regime.
The triggering impulse was their rejection of being forced to take classes in Afrikaans in their schools, a language most closely identified with the white minority government.
But it reflected a broader rejection of hundreds of years of racial rule — and, in their view, the failure of their parents and prior generations to stand up to sufficiently to injustice.
On that day, perhaps hundreds of young people died, shot by police. Hector Pieterson, only 13 at the time, was one of the first to be shot and killed, and he is today memorialized in an iconic photograph from the period for his role in ending apartheid, along with a museum in his name. The student uprising ushered in an era of almost continuous protest that culminated nearly two decades later with the end of apartheid in 1994 when Nelson Mandela was elected president.
I grew up in South Africa, and even though I grew up in a privileged white family (as all white families were), I witnessed every day not implicit bias, but raw racism that was enforced by a brutal police state. I saw black South Africans being picked up and arrested, violating the so-called “pass laws” designed to control movements of the majority of South Africans. I saw houses being destroyed as part of forced removals that pushed out millions into remote areas outside areas designated for whites. Everything was segregated by law — beaches, park benches, buses, movie theaters — with “whites only” and “non-whites only” signs an unavoidable feature of the physical landscape.
I came to the United States a few months after Martin Luther King had been assassinated, with the civil rights struggle still underway. At the time Mandela and his fellow political prisoners were serving life sentences on Robben Island, and the anti-apartheid movement had been crushed, including the student movement I had participated in as a white student at the University of Cape Town, largely segregated by law.
Years later, as a journalist, I reported on the last years of the apartheid state, and observed close at hand how the white minority desperately tried to hold on to power. But eventually, Mandela was released from prison and negotiated an end to apartheid. A democratic government is now firmly in place in South Africa.
In the U.S., it is stunning that we are still dealing with racial issues that should have been resolved a long time ago. On the education level, despite the landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling, schools remain lopsidedly racially and ethnically segregated. The black-white achievement gap remains unacceptably large.
Why, I ask myself?
Is it because, unlike South Africa, the United States has never had a Truth and Reconciliation Commission that forced the nation to confront its past?
Is it because the victories of the civil rights period, and laws ostensibly guaranteeing racial equality, have allowed the majority of Americans to convince themselves that racism has ended, absolving themselves of having to do anything further?
Is it that whites in South Africa are in the minority, while in the U.S. they are in the majority, making it easier to ignore the enduring impact of racism, and to repress disadvantaged minorities, most notably African Americans?
In South Africa, whites have had no choice but to accept majority rule. In many cases, it is an imperative. If you want to do business in South Africa, for example, you have to reach black South Africans, who will be the majority of your clients and customers.
That is not to say there isn’t racism in South Africa. The profound legacy of apartheid rule will take generations to eliminate. South Africa remains one of the most unequal societies in the world. But the raw racism that I witnessed growing up in an ultra-conservative, segregated mostly Afrikaner community just outside Cape Town is being systemically rooted out at an astonishingly rapid pace.
The demographic changes in the U.S. mean that whites over time will comprise a smaller and smaller percentage of the population. It is projected that the nation will become “minority white” by 2045. California, the nation’s most diverse state, passed that milestone two decades ago.
These trends alone are forcing the nation — and especially young people — to adapt and increasingly to embrace the changed racial and ethnic landscape.
Now, modern technology is making it impossible to ignore some of the most obvious manifestations of racial bias and raw racism in the U.S. — most blatantly in the confrontations that have taken the lives of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd in recent weeks.
One of the most positive developments in the U.S. is that young people are emerging as a prominent force in the most powerful protest movement since the 1960s. The recent student-led march that mobilized 15,000 people in Oakland to protest the killing of George Floyd is only one of many examples from around the nation.
If young people had not risen up in 1976, Nelson Mandela might have never become president, and apartheid might still be in place, or its demise at the very least delayed. I am hoping that young people, less burdened by entrenched attitudes and vested interests than their parents’ generation and those before them, will similarly take the lead here. And that, one day, we will also celebrate a Youth Day to commemorate their contributions to achieving racial justice in the United States.
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