Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Response Paper to Shaun Johnson article You’re Never Too Young [Spencer Edelman]

Spencer Edelman
Response Paper to Shaun Johnson article
You’re Never Too Young

In the third chapter of his book South Africa: No Turning Back, Shaun Johnson traces the youth movements of South African activists from the Youth League of the African National Congress in 1944 through the time he wrote the book in 1989. This chapter is titled ‘The Soldiers of Luthuli’ and it is a very choice word to call the youth in the South African movement soldiers, for it is the youth who become the militants who drive the freedom movement forward. In Mapantsula the Comrades were depicted as peaceful protesters using only model guns, this characterization implies peaceful demonstration by youth, which Johnson denies. Instead this chapter presents as its main argument the enthusiasm of youth driving both the militancy and peaceful protesting of the movement forward, but detracting from the movement’s overall progress through inexperience and impatience.

The most important thing to convey when discussing youth is how “youth” is defined. Johnson defines it this way, “ ‘Youth’, in this context, refers to an attitude of mind as much as it does to age. It connotes the most energetic, volatile and impatient elements of the black communities.” (95) It takes more than energy to make an impact, however, and the drive for change comes when a generation develops a “generational consciousness.” “This unifying consciousness can transcend differences of age, class and race,” and indeed when this develops actions become more rapid and also more chaotic. (95) Johnson argues that as youth pushes the movement forward through its unity and energy, the inexperience and volatility found in youth draws energy away from social change, by fracturing alliances and pushing for more rapid change. As an example he notes the actions culminating on the devastating day of June 16, 1976. Following a government proclamation that all African classes would be taught in Afrikaans, a middle-school aged group called the South African Students’ Movement (SASM) which had formed in 1972 to represent youth, called for a walkout from classes to protest the usage of Afrikaans in all classes. On June 16, the energy and unity of Soweto youth single-handedly created a rebirth of mass protest, when 10,000 pupils took to the streets. Instead of this being the culmination of events, a series of “peripheral exchanges” between pupils and security forces led to mass carnage, with between 600 and 1,000 humans beings dead, many of them children. (102) This is one example of the energy youth provide to drive the movement forward, but at the same time the volatility of the youth. Johnson’s argument becomes much stronger when he discusses what SASM does after this horrific day to build upon the militancy which had unified the Soweto children. Over a two-year period the Soweto Students’ Representative Council (SSRC) (a Soweto leadership group formed to represent all schools) took the unity that June 16 had created and began to form a philosophy beyond educational grievances to a general rally against apartheid. Despite much success in getting labor movements involved, the government’s crack down on Black Consciousness leaders and SASM in 1977 left the leaders in jail. The militancy which had surged to mass protest had fizzled out, and as Johnson says, “The spasm of defiance had highlighted the need for more than just militancy in youth organization: strategies, tactics, ideologies and alliances would have to follow.” (104)

This is an argument Johnson provides evidence for very thoroughly and understandable, all the way up through the militancy in the 1980’s and the government’s huge counter movement operations in 1986. However, in the second part of the chapter, Johnson focuses more and more on the alliances necessary for youth to have a long lasting impact, this was stated in the slogan, “From Mobilisation to Organisation”. (134) At this point it is unclear whether Johnson is retelling things through an historical narrative as he had been in the rest of the chapter, or stating his own beliefs about how the movement would become successful in ending apartheid, and I find that his argument is not as thorough and much less convincing. He states, “Grassroots work no longer involved simply mobilizing a community for a particular campaign; it demanded painstaking, inconspicuous politicization with few visible or immediate results.” (140) In many ways he is contradicting his own argument that youth both drives the movement forward and derails it through impatience, rather he is advocating a tempered youth movement. This moderation he suggests takes away from the militancy and energy which youth bring, and it is this that he stated had driven the general movement forward in 1976.

The most enjoyable and convincing parts of this piece involve the numerous first hand anecdotes and songs which describe the inner-workings and inner-feelings of the youth involved in radical social change. The two parts which stick out most strongly in both an argumentative and literary sense are two songs:

We’re going to take over, take over
Take our country in the Mugabe way
Run away, run away, Boha
Umkhonto has arrived
We are the soldiers of Luthuli,
Led by Mandela,
Even if it is bad we are going
Move aside and give us way. (121)

And the closing words of the piece:
We bold enough to question
We brave enough to fight
We strong enough to challenge you
For what we know is right
We are the young and the strong
And we are the writings on the wall (143)