A message of truth to the black working-class youth of today
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It will be 45 years ago on June 16 that the youth of Soweto marched from Morris Isaacson High School and Naledi High School to Orlando Stadium. They didn’t make it. The apartheid police killed them. The youth made history.
George Floyd was strangled to death by a white policeman’s knee last year. He too made history. The blood of the youth of 1976 watered the tree of liberation, so did Floyd’s. His death gave birth to the greatest movement against racism in the US – Black Lives Matter. The Soweto martyrs gave birth to the greatest international movement of solidarity against racism in history – the anti-apartheid movement.
The long struggle for freedom
African-Americans were emancipated from slavery in 1865. A hundred years later, in 1965, Martin Luther King led a march from Selma to Montgomery, demanding an end to racism, full voting rights and freedom for black people. Barack Obama became the first black president in the US in 2009.
It didn’t matter; white police continued to kill black people with impunity until Floyd’s death drew a line: enough is enough! Black Lives Matter is raising questions about police brutality and institutional racism: Why is it that African-Americans continue to be the most jailed and jobless and the poorest people in the US? American activists are reading books on “racial capitalism”, in their quest to understand the iniquities of the American political and economic system.
Nelson Mandela was inaugurated as the first black president in 1994. We, the generation of 1976, celebrated the end of apartheid – freedom! Today’s youth were not yet born. Let me, as the youth of yesterday, talk to the youth of today.
I cannot mince my words because Floyd demands from his grave that everyone everywhere must speak the truth about the everyday life of black people in the world today. As Amilcar Cabral wrote: “Speak no lies, claim no easy victories!”
Message to the youth of today
I speak to you, the black working-class youth of today, because you are the majority in the South African population. You suffer from the highest rate of unemployment. Hence, many of you are a bit surprised to hear that you have got political liberation. That you have freedom, that you have rights.
Freedom means being in control of your destiny, doing the things you want and having a life that you desire. We tell you that you are free, that we fought to make you free, but your life and your eyes tell you something else.
You know how it is when you don’t have enough money to buy what you need. The hardship, pain and suffering of a life of poverty. Someone on TV tells a story about how black people have got political freedom but not economic freedom. That we have got political freedom and economic freedom is missing.
There were many changes which came from the Struggle. But one thing did not change – the power the capitalist class has because they own and control the wealth. In fact, the Constitution protected that power and told them they could keep the wealth that they got from apartheid and all the oppression and exploitation which came before.
There is economic freedom under capitalism. You can enjoy the freedom of the working class under capitalism. But it is a freedom that is limited, distorted and diseased. Economic freedom under capitalism is the freedom to be exploited in employment or to be destitute in unemployment.
Freedom under capitalism comes with chains for workers. Bourgeois democracy is not very democratic.
Dashed hopes, blocked aspirations
You have listened to a father coughing to death. His lungs full of mining dust and not enough money to go to a doctor. You know what it means to see a mother who must every day disappear to look after other children and be on her knees cleaning floors. You know this because it was like that with your mother.
You know what it means to dream of the day when you could do something for them. You heard it so many times: work hard at school so that you can be someone. And you worked hard. You had that dream. And now?
The father is gone. It is no more about working hard at school. You have got the certificate. You got that certificate for her. She was proud. You were proud. And now? The certificate is a piece of paper standing in the cupboard. Your mother must still disappear to be on her knees. There is no more of that pride. You are scared to look at her because you think she is judging you. You are judging yourself.
It is the judgement that you hear a million times from a million different places: You are doing nothing. You are bringing nothing. You are worth nothing. Because you are unemployed. It is hard to remember that you had a dream – a dream that one day you would be able to look after so many people who can depend on you.
But you are not alone. Millions are in the same situation. Millions feel your pain.
It is not about clapping our hands because we have political liberation and then moving to the next stage – the struggle for economic liberation. It is about seeing the disease and the chains that come from the capitalist system. And moving forward in struggle against that system, against its politics and against its economics. It is about the collective struggle of the working class to have control over the decisions that decide what happens in our lives every day.
It is about turning to the millions, to one another, and building a struggle to get rid of a system that keeps us in chains. If some of us, the youth of 1976, stand in your way, throw us into the dustbin of history. Build a new world, a world free of oppression and exploitation.
* Dr Trevor Ngwane is the president of the South African Sociological Association.
** The views expressed here are not necessaril those of IOL and Independent Media.