Youth Day commemorates the 16 June 1976 peaceful student uprising in Soweto, to which the Apartheid era police responded with deadly force, shooting schoolchildren dead in the streets. Photos of the police riot awakened the world to the realities of Apartheid while the responding protests among black South Africans renewed the movement that would culminate, in 1994, with the election of then-imprisoned activist Nelson Mandela to the presidency of South Africa.
Soweto Blues, here sung by Miriam Makeba, tells the story of that dreadful day. The verses are in English, the refrain in Xhosa/Zulu. Makeba was exiled from South Africa at the time, her songs having been banned since her 1963 testimony against Apartheid before the United Nations. If you’d like to know more about Makeba and other dissident jazz divas of that time and place, visit the Afropop Worldwide Southern Africa Archive and scroll down to the section entitled “South African Jazz Revival.”
If you want to understand the title of this post, you’ll have to listen to the song. If you like the music, support the artist. If you like the message, support the struggle.
While the era of legal Apartheid is over, the struggles against injustice and for decent education continue in southern Africa. David Johnson, a South African who, as a student, was inspired by the Soweto uprising to join the struggle against Apartheid, reports that the struggle for equality in education is not yet won. In neighboring Zimbabwe, conditions are far worse. Here, the Sokwanele Civic Action Support Group reports on the recent murder by police of Gift Tandare, the youth chairperson of the National Constitutional Assembly (NCA) local structure in a Harare suburb. As in Soweto in 1976, the Zimbabwe police in April of this year shot live ammunition into a peaceful crowd of dissidents. The best way to honor the spirit of the youth of Soweto, the authors of this article assert, is to stand in solidarity with the youth of Zimbabwe today.
You don’t have to go to Africa to do something about racism in education. Here in the USA, de facto Apartheid deprives many students of color of the education they need to pull themselves out of poverty and participate fully in the political life of their communities. I teach at an historically black university to which students come from some of the most impoverished neighborhoods on the east coast. Many students arrive unprepared for college even though they did well at the under-funded public schools they attended. The realization can be painful.
I recall a moment last winter when, following a persuasive speech by a student against mandatory attendance policies, a freeform discussion of grievances broke out in one of my classes. After getting some pent-up resentments out of their systems, the students began talking more reflectively about their frustrations. Several reported being lost in classes in which they had expected, based on their high school grades, to do well. Imagine coming to college thinking of yourself as a good student only to discover that you don’t have the skills to handle introductory math or first-year composition! One very smart and hardworking young woman captured it well when, struggling for words, she said, “I feel… tricked.”
Are the schools in your community betraying students in that way? What can you do about it? How are the schools in your community funded? Administered? Is the local school board selected or elected? Since the 1990s, Christian fundamentalists have made a concerted effort to use the inattention of most community members to get themselves onto school boards. Have they taken over the school board in your community while you weren’t looking?
What are the students in your community doing for themselves? How can you be their ally? In my hometown of Baltimore, high school students staged a three-day strike in March of last year and have launched a local Algebra Project. You can read all about it in this issue of the Indypendent Reader.