Today in South Africa is Youth Day. On this day we stop to remember the young people who rose up in resistance to an education system that disadvantaged black students. Today we are reminded of the damage the apartheid system inflicted on our society—damage which we are still struggling to repair. And on this day we remember the brave young women and men who risked their lives in their quest to be treated as fully human and worthy of respect and dignity.
While I was not yet a teenager when the Soweto uprising broke out and ignited protests across the country, I got my first sense that all was not well in the world. In the years following, the reality of apartheid slowly dawned on me, but my mentors in the religious communities to which I belonged warned me to stay away from ‘politics’. In Sunday school and youth group meetings, we heard stories of the ‘rooi gevaar’ (the ‘red danger’ as communism was labelled). And we were instructed to win people’s hearts for Jesus, not to get tempted by social justice or trying to change structures, which couldn’t save anyone. The result of this religious upbringing was that I believed that spirituality was about hearts and souls and getting people into heaven. But how wrong I was!
THE CHALLENGE OF CHILDREN
In the last couple of weeks, we’ve been exploring what it means to be childlike, to become like a child, as a deliberate spiritual practice. I chose to make this the focus of my blog posts in June knowing that Youth Day was coming up. That’s because I believe that the protesters of 1976 have a lot to teach us about the value and power of becoming like children. It’s important to remember that, while teachers and other adults participated in the Soweto Uprising, a significant proportion of the protesters were children. Hector Pieterson was only 12-years-old when he got fatally shot by police and Hastings Ndlovu was only fifteen.
We love to think about the fun and joyful aspects of childhood when we read Jesus’ words about becoming like children. That’s why we’ve explored themes like curiosity and playfulness. But in the protests of 16 June 1976, we see a number of challenging spiritual qualities that aren’t unique to children, but that get expressed by children in unique ways. Here are my thoughts as I observe this day of remembering with gratitude and reflection.
There is a wonderful feeling of omnipotence in children. They so often seem completely oblivious to their limitations and many will do things that would terrify their seniors just for the fun of it. This feeling of being ‘bulletproof’ can be dangerous, but it also inspires children to take risks that can make a significant difference. I doubt that anyone had an idea of how important the Soweto Uprising would come to be in South Africa’s history, but for the young people who willingly joined in there was a determination to confront an unjust system regardless of the dangers. Horrifically it claimed at least 176 lives, although estimates suggest it could have been as many as 700 (the official count was only 23!). This example of fearlessness in the face of unjust power and violence humbles and challenges me.
Alongside the fearlessness and risk-taking, the protesters of 1976 also showed deep courage and determination. While they were often painted as godless communists by the apartheid government, many came from devout families and had been taught that their faith was as much about bringing God’s Reign of love and justice to earth as about what happens after death. As a result, when the moment came to work for freedom, these young people embraced the call with admirable courage.
There is much more that I could say, but perhaps just one other quality needs to be mentioned here. The children who joined the Soweto Uprising were passionate and unhesitating in their willingness to get involved and make a difference. They took what they believed and put it into action that would lead to change in their society. I find their commitment to do something deeply challenging and inspiring, and I am grateful for their example.
BECOMING LIKE THE SOWETO UPRISING CHILDREN
I hope that in some way, as I seek to become more like a child in my own spirituality and life, that I may learn from the children who rose up on June 16, 1976. I pray that I may find a portion of their fearlessness, courage, and commitment to action. And I pray that I won’t ever be so comfortable that I stop doing what I can to make our world more just, compassionate, loving, and welcoming for all people. And I hope that maybe you’ll join me in these prayers.
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As I look back at this significant turning-point in our history, which I too was too young and too sheltered to appreciate, I realise how important it is that children are both seen and heard. Their astounding determination is not just to get their own way, as we “adult” members of the community are want to believe. The idealism and endurance as well as the compassion and teamwork of many whom we regard as children and their deep desire for justice which will not be satisfied with easy answers is a great challenge and inspiration to me.
Thank you for your reflections, Shona. I resonate with everything you have said here, and I too am deeply challenged by children and youth who are changing the world for the better!