Freedom and Fatigue

Wednesday at the District Six Museum, several of the youth organizations affiliated with the museum held a day of film screening centered around the power of youth. This week was the beginning of winter break for high schools (it’s weird to think about how everything is reversed here!), so lots of young people were able to attend.

After a few short film screenings and workshops in the morning, the afternoon schedule had the students watching a documentary about the life of Rosa Parks and the larger civil rights movement her activism inspired. Although it was a bit long, I found the film to be incredibly powerful, as it demonstrated the courage and persistence of Ms. Parks and the participants of the Montgomery Bus Boycotts. It was a very interesting moment to be in the middle of South Africa watching a film about the history of my own country. Talking about, researching, and thinking about apartheid while in South Africa, it is easy to forget about the fact that similar racial and economic discrimination existed (and, perhaps, continues to exist) in the US.

The discussion that followed the film, led by one of my Duke professors (Bob Korstad), was especially powerful, and it illustrated both the challenges and opportunities existing in South Africa today. This past weekend, Bob, Jabulani (the professor from Pietermaritzburg’s University of KwaZulu-Natal), and I had a conversation about how much progress South Africa still has to go. In many ways, the achievement of political freedom in 1994 was only the beginning of the end of apartheid since so many economic, educational, and health inequalities stand in the way of total and complete realization of freedom. And unfortunately, due to corruption and the spoils of patronage, it appears as if the self-serving nature of political parties, including the ANC, will not be able to deliver equality. Instead, it can only be achieved by an extra-political organization composed of everyday South Africans actively participating in their democracy and demanding their rights.

Much to my surprise, many of the students after watching the documentary, made incisive observations similar to what Bob, Jabulani, and I discussed. They incisively recognized that so much progress remains ahead of them and that it will be up to their generation to continue the march to freedom.

While the conversation demonstrated the opportunities and hope for the future, it also featured a phenomenon far-too present in society. The success of the anti-apartheid movement was a testament to the bravery and selflessness of so many South Africans who sacrificed their livelihoods and personal well being for the sake of something larger than themselves. The struggle was long, difficult, and thankless, and they deserve endless gratitude and appreciation from the “freedom generation,” the young people today born into a democratic South Africa.

During the dialogue the other day, many of the youth program leaders, who are mostly middle aged, began speaking about their involvement with the movement, elaborating on the sacrifices they made and emphasizing the difficulties they encountered. But what were supposed to be (I think, at least) inspirational anecdotes and speeches turned more into preaching. The adults, it seemed to me, were talking down to the young people about how hard they had it and how lazy the youth today are—a prime example of the whole “back in my day, we walked to school uphill…both ways.”

It is often said that South Africa suffers from a syndrome known as “struggle fatigue,” basically that the country can’t get past its past. I never fully understood what that term meant. The past is important. It’s integral to moving forward and achieving true freedom in the coming generations. However, as I witnessed the other afternoon, it can get to be too much.

Does endless fixation on the past only generate malaise and fatigue? Do former activists need to take the backseat and allow the next generation of leaders to emerge? But is this next generation ready to lead and ready to sacrifice?

For South Africa today, the challenges and uncertainties are seemingly endless.

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