Lessons for children of the pandemic from children of the protests
Their enemies are of a different time and form. But the 1976 generation can teach a lot about leading and succeeding
In this week in which we commemorate June 16 the children of the protests need to sit down with the children of the pandemic. They have much to learn from each other.
The historic student uprising that started in Soweto and fanned out across the country led to massive injuries (more than 2,000) and loss of life (more than 500). Schools closed down, as well as some universities, with the result that many students lost the academic year. Thousands of students were in prison lockdown as the apartheid state targeted the most vulnerable in society – children. The enemy was visible, in your face; the full force of the SA police and security services combined as Africa’s most powerful army poured onto the streets of Athlone and Atteridgeville. As weeks and months of protests followed, it was not clear when the crisis would end as 1976 was followed by new surges of protest in 1980 and 1985; there would need to be a political settlement.
The historic plague that started in Wuhan, China, and spread across the world would cause the death of more than 432,000 humans at the time of writing. As it reached the shores of SA, more than 74,000 infections have already been recorded with more than 1,568 deaths by mid-June 2020. Millions of South Africans are in lockdown. The academic year is all but lost even as the department of education foolishly tries to convince the public that things are back to normal. The enemy is invisible, this time, a virus that takes aim at the most vulnerable in society – older people and those whose bodies are immunocompromised as a result of diabetes and hypertension. It is not at all clear when this crisis will be over as medical scientists predict new surges in the rate of infections and death; there would need to be lifesaving vaccines.
What can the children of the 2020 pandemic learn from the children of the 1976 protests? One important lesson is that from the horrors of that period there emerged some of the most influential young leaders in the country. True, the loss was great. Many young people never recovered from that brutal period; the toll on youth remains incalculable to this day. Studies ended. Health suffered. Families were broken. Dreams were dashed.
The toll on the 1976 youth remains incalculable to this day. Studies ended. Health suffered. Families were broken. Dreams were dashed.
And yet out of the ashes emerged fresh-faced leaders who would lead not only in SA but on a world stage. Young people like Kumi Naidoo in environmental activism (Greenpeace) or Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka in international women’s development (United Nations). When the crisis was over, these young men and women came out stronger and more committed to making a difference in a world where problems of inequality and injustice still afflicted humankind.
So what are the lessons for the children of the pandemic from the children of the protests? One, that however harsh the lockdown and the disruptions to your life as a student, it is certainly not the end of the world. So many students and student leaders from the 1970s onwards, despite their suffering, would catch up with their studies, pursue their dream careers and live fulfilling lives.
Two, you have a choice to come out defeated and bemoan what you have lost because of the lockdown, or to rise determined to lead in our broken world. In other words, how you went into the pandemic lockdown is far less important than how you come out of it. Those who energetically reset the direction of their “post-corona” lives are the ones who will lead and succeed in the new world.
Three, those who came out of the apartheid lockdown and made it big in the world were ambitious. They saw new opportunities in the world that opened up after the repression. In their slipstream followed other youth like Trevor Noah into world comedy, and Vinny Lingham into internet entrepreneurship. If you plan to be an architect, think of designing new office building prototypes using social distancing principles. If you’re into computer-based learning technologies think of how to design online, interactive clinical or laboratory experiences for students in the clinical professions.
If you come out of lockdown with the intention to merely survive or catch up lost time, that is what you will achieve. But if you come out with the intention of leading you will end up in a very different place.
One area in which leadership is desperately needed is to address the deep inequalities in our society which were laid bare by the coronavirus. Will the new generation of youth coming out of this pandemic lockdown rise to the challenge? For that we desperately need leaders in public service to replace the crooked, callous and incompetent leaders who, sadly, are the undesirable products of the protest generation.