(Sharing more of my research for my new novel A Rebel Comes of Age)
Much has been made of the role of youth in sparking the “Arab Spring” revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa. The willingness of Arab citizens to rebel against some of the world’s most oppressive regimes is a new and significant phenomenon. It highlights the distinction between political and psychological oppression. Psychological repression is a state of wholesale resignation, when a population believes any resistance will be totally crushed.
The Role of Youth in Sparking Revolution
Youth are nearly always the engine behind any movement to throw off psychological oppression. Older people have an overwhelming drive for “business as usual.” Austrian-born child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim credits this drive for the failure of European Jews to resist the Nazi campaign to enslave and exterminate them. Teenagers, in contrast, possess an illusion an illusion of immortality. They often find it difficult to grasp the finality of death.
Lessons from History: Soweto and the Intifada
Both the 1976 Soweto uprising in South Africa and the first Palestinian Intifada (1987) were initiated by teenagers. Both South Africa and Palestine were riding the crest of a baby boom and faced high youth unemployment. In addition, both the South African townships and occupied Palestine faced a general breakdown in parental authority. In both settings, parents traveled long distances (to Johannesburg or Israel). A whole generation of children, were left on their own to raise themselves. The link between the breakdown of parental authority and youth rebellion is a major theme of my first novel The Battle for Tomorrow.
The Anti-Apartheid Movement
The 1976 Soweto uprising is widely credited as the start of mass popular resistance to apartheid. The students who started it came from a generation that essentially raised themselves. Strict pass laws implemented in the 1950s forced many black residents to give up to their homes in South African cities and move to black-only townships or Bantustans, where there was no work. The only work open to black men was in remote work camps at the gold and diamond mines. While Sowetan women worked as domestics and nannies for white families in Johannesburg and only returned to their own children on weekends.
In 1976 Soweto teenagers had a lot in common with homeless teens, third world street children and “young carers” (children who care for parents with physical or mental disabilities or drug and alcohol problems). Forced to look after themselves from an early age, it’s typical for these teenagers to exhibit precocious maturity.
Conditions that Politicized the Bantu Schools
The event the triggered the 1976 uprising was a decree requiring that all Bantu schools teach their subjects in Afrikaans (the language of the original Dutch settlers of South Africa), rather than English. Owing to atrocious conditions in the Bantu schools, students were already highly politicized. While education in white schools was free, black parents were charged 51 rand a year (a half month’s salary) The Bantu schools were also incredibly overcrowded, with sixty or more students per class and teachers who often had no education qualifications.
The prelude to the June 16 uprising was a classroom boycott in early June of seventh and eight graders at Orlando West Primary School. Students from seven other Soweto schools immediately joined in. On Sunday June 13th, 400 students met in Orlando (hard to imagine without cellphones Facebook or Twitter) to call for a mass boycott and demonstration for June 16th. They also made a pact not to inform their parents, who they believed would try to stop them.
On June 16, fifteen to twenty thousand students age 10-20 in school uniform met at Orlando West Secondary school to march to the stadium. When the students refused to disperse, the police opened fire, killing several. The others went wild, throwing rocks and bottles at the police and setting fire to all symbols of apartheid – government buildings, liquor stores, beer halls and trucks, buses and cars belonging to white businesses.
Where Deadly Police Force Fails
The next morning rioting spread to other townships, as well as to Pretoria, Durban and Capetown with “colored” (mixed race) and Indian students also joining the rebellion. The police were totally unable to quell the rioters, even with force, owing to the students’ greater numbers and their total disregard for their own safety. It would take sixteen months for peace to be restored in the townships.
(To be continued, with a discussion of the role of teenagers in the Palestinian Intifada.)
In A Rebel Comes of Age, seventeen-year-old Angela Jones and four other homeless teenagers occupy a vacant commercial building owned by Bank of America. The adventure turns deadly serious when the bank obtains a court order evicting them. Ange faces the most serious crisis of her life when the other residents decide to use firearms against the police SWAT team.
$3.99 ebook available (in all formats) from Smashwords:
The first step is getting young people to recognize how badly they’ve been screwed over and to question the assumptions of progress handed down by previous generations.
“Burn Baby Burn!”