[intro]In the winter of 1976, the storms that battered the Cape brought more than rain and hail – they also stirred up the seditious idea of freedom in young minds all across the Cape Flats. I was sixteen years old at the time and attended Alexander Sinton High in Athlone, Cape Town – a school that was known for its political activism. In fact, a year or two earlier we had chased away some officials from the puppet ‘Coloured Representative Council’ who had planned to use our school as a voting station for their forthcoming elections. Little did we realise that our school would soon become one of the key focal points of an unprecedented student uprising across the Cape Flats.[/intro]
It started during our first break, one morning in early July, when we decided to hold a placard demonstration in solidarity with the youth of Soweto who were shot by the police some weeks earlier. This simple, non-violent act of protest, unthreatening as it was, elicited a complete over-reaction from the riot police.
In no time, the riot police invaded our school with their rifles and their dogs, their truncheons and their tear gas. If only those camouflage-clad Neanderthals realised at the time how their acts of brutality would speed up the cause of liberation! Thanks to them, ordinary school children were turned into hard-eyed, angry, impatient young militants, practically overnight.
We decided to abandon our classrooms and took to the school hall every day where we sang our freedom songs and dreamt of a new country yet to be born. Banned material, considered innocuous by today’s standards, became our prescribed reading material. I remember the liberating power of the Black Consciousness Movement that empowered us to shake off the ambivalence that had beset many in the coloured community, and to identify ourselves as black.
We accused our parents of not having done enough to challenge the apartheid regime. Our parents in turn, bewildered by the new-found militancy of their children, simply didn’t know what to do with us. We had flatly rejected the logic of gradualism and the ‘old school’ style of patient persuasion. We demanded freedom in our lifetime and were no longer prepared to wait for a softening of attitude on the part of the white establishment.
I remember our wise school principal, Mr Desai, who had the incredibly difficult task of keeping his young charges safe from the clutches of the police (as ironic as that sounds!). In retrospect, I believe that our principal, through his calm and patient demeanor, probably diverted many a tragic show down between angry pupils and trigger-happy cops.
That was a time of political innocence. To my young mind, the narrative of ‘us’ and ‘them’ could not have been clearer. We were the victims and ‘they’ were the villains. We were the wronged and they were the perpetrators of that wrong. We were on the side of justice and righteousness and all they had was the ignominy of being on the wrong side of history. We would never give up the fight, but one day they would have to relinquish power. In my wildly exaggerated vision of the future, our liberators would one day cross the Limpopo River, vanquish our oppressors and usher in a society in which the people would govern. Life was wonderfully uncomplicated then!
Forty years later and twenty two years into democracy the dominant narrative of white privilege and black exclusion stubbornly persists. However, the ‘pure’ narrative of white guilt and black victimhood is difficult to sustain. Other narratives are vying to take center-stage. There is the narrative of the unprincipled pursuit of wealth and its corrosive effects on the souls and values of the oppressed. There is the narrative of the billions that could have been spent on uplifting our people but have instead been flushed down the sewer of corruption and political connections. There is the narrative of poor governance and mismanagement of public institutions. There is the narrative of missed opportunities, ‘own goals’ and the squandering of our political fortunes post-1994. There is the narrative of new patterns of advantage and disadvantage. There is the narrative of renewed and vitriolic forms of racism. In short, the South African narrative is no longer one-dimensional. Perhaps it never has been. It is a complex narrative that defies finger-pointing in one direction. It is a narrative that forces us to take collective accountability for the state of our land and collective responsibility for fixing it.
Our country is again on the cusp of major social change. There is a new generation of angry and defiant youth, who have become impatient with explanations that justify social exclusion. For them, the dream of substantive equality can no longer be deferred. We can only hope that they will draw lessons from the past. We hope that they have seen what happens to freedom fighters when they are catapulted into positions of power and privilege. We hope that they have seen how easily noble pursuits are set aside by the allure of sudden wealth.
We hope for a new generation of leaders, less obsessed with the Party and more devoted to developing this land and all its people. We hope for a new parliament, one that understands that it is not an assembly of praise singers, but a critical and courageous watchdog of democratic values. In short, we hope for smart, ethical, inclusive and responsible leadership. Unfortunately, judging by the calibre of some of our ‘future leaders’, there isn’t much reason for optimism. But we still hope.