The following was a speech I delivered on 30 April 2016 at the #ShareYourStory African Students For Liberty Conference.
As a law student in both the formal and informal sense, I regard law not only as a human creation, but also a spontaneous arrangement of society which came to be as a result of human beings’ rational interaction.
There is, however, a common belief within legal and political communities, but also among the general public, that the law is inviolable. It may not be broken, and if it is, that act is in itself immoral. Basic human liberties across the world have historically been and remain to this day, unlawful. And to ignore the annoyance of these laws is often met with great opposition from peers, declaring that that is illegal. Of course, it is illegal, but does justice necessarily flow from legality?
In 1963 in a letter from Birmingham Jail in the United States, civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr. said the following:
“One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.”
King rooted this statement in the prior sentiments of St. Augustine, who said that “an unjust law is no law at all”, and Thomas Aquinas, who said that an unjust law is a human law not rooted in natural law.
As libertarians, our gateway to the theory of law comes in no better form than the seminal work of Frederic Bastiat, The Law. He opens this text by declaring that the law has been perverted by people who seek to use the law for plunder. He defines plunder as the forceful taking of property from owners and giving it others. The proper role of the law, Bastiat believed, is to protect the person and property of individuals.
Now, I was asked to talk about the strength of young people amid repressing policies within the South African context. I could think of no better story to tell, than that of the events of 1976 in Soweto.
America’s civil rights era can be considered to have ended in the mid-1970s, when, on the whole, the law finally regarded all Americans as equal.
South Africa’s own civil rights struggle, however, was just beginning at that time, and would not end until 1990 when Apartheid finally reached the beginning of its end.
Apartheid is often misunderstood because the anti-Apartheid narrative has been appropriated by people who, when pushed, appear to in fact agree with the logic underlying Apartheid. The system was instituted by the white South African government in 1948 and was apparently intended to act as a safeguard of rights and cultures. Black South Africans would be allowed to pursue their own interests and culture in their own areas, and white South Africans would be allowed to do the same. Formally, this was ‘equal treatment’.
However, whether intended or not, Apartheid would never have turned out the way it was presented. Indeed, the so-called ‘black areas’ were by that time already underdeveloped with sparse economic opportunities. Naturally, the economic hubs of South Africa were in the urban cities; in the so-called ‘white areas’. This led to many black South Africans coming to these areas, but with very limited access to opportunities and the exercise of their rights. The Minister of Bantu Administration even had the power to prohibit the employment of black South Africans in specific areas. This inevitably meant poverty.
And for the youth, this meant growing up very, very fast.
In the ‘black areas’ – officially known as ‘homelands’ – where black South Africans had their own governments, male children became the men of the household at a very early age, as their fathers travelled hundreds of kilometres to the ‘white cities’ to work, and send money back home. Many children also had to work – often illegally – to help their parents make ends meet.
The South African government also created black enclaves within the white parts of the country, where so-called migrant labourers and their families could live temporarily. Soweto, south of South Africa’s largest city Johannesburg, was one of these areas. The schools in these areas, for black children, were controlled by the white South African government, under the Department of Bantu Education. However, unlike the white schools, these schools did not receive much institutional support. For a comparison in today’s rates, for every $45 spent on a white student, only $3 was spent on a black student. The government was dedicated to keeping black individuals in their homelands, and therefore directed most state revenue there.
As a result, the black schools in places like Soweto often had over 100 students in one class, with poorly-trained, demoralised teachers.
No rational human being could tolerate these conditions.
The final straw came in 1973 when the government made Afrikaans the compulsory second language in all black schools in so-called white areas. This replaced mother tongue instruction at many of these schools. The teachers did not know Afrikaans well enough to teach mathematics, history, or geography in it. Eventually, they petitioned the government, but to no avail. The Deputy Minister of Bantu Education is reported as saying “as far as the white areas are concerned, this is a decision that has been taken and I am going to stand by it”. Black South Africans could pursue their own wishes in education in the homelands, according to him.
As could be expected, black youth fared poorly in those subjects which were now taught in Afrikaans.
In 1976, young students began their resistance to this policy which they did not only not want, but which was totally impractical. As a native speaker of Afrikaans myself, this outrage should not be seen as being anti-Afrikaans. It was simply not possible for these students to excel being taught in this language.
The pupils started leaving school and staging small demonstrations. It was on 30 April during that year, that students from Orlando West Junior School held one of the earlier protests. Their concerned parents held meetings where they decided the students should go back to school while the adults try to sort the matter out, but the youth would hear nothing of it.
The students themselves planned to stage a large peaceful march to the headquarters of the Department of Bantu Education, where they would make their demands known. Most of their parents were not told of this planned march, which was scheduled for 16 June 1976.
16 June, today, is known as National Youth Day in South Africa.
When the students came marching over the Orlando West Bridge on their way to a gathering at the Orlando Stadium, they were met by the South African Police. At this first confrontation, several students were shot and killed.
Soweto would become a warzone for that entire day, with thousands of students rising up against the unjust laws imposed upon them by the government. The Soweto Uprising, as it would come to be called, continued until 18 June – 2 days later. Reports vary widely, but between 176 and 700 students were killed, with thousands injured.
Over the following months, Soweto would come to a standstill as employees would stay away from work, in protesting the tragedy. Property was also destroyed on a large scale. The Minister of Justice acknowledged shortly after the incident that riots have spread across the entire country. By the end of February 1977, about a year later, a government commission reported that 575 people had been killed.
The Soweto Uprising is often said to have been the beginning of the end of Apartheid, as the government was unable to rescue its international standing in the aftermath of the shootings. The BBC even had a radio program commemorating the event, titled The Day Apartheid Died. The relative peace South Africa experienced beforehand came to an end. Civil unrest would continue for more than a decade, with successive states of emergency being declared throughout the 1980s. The bombings, burnings, and riots only finally stopped in the mid-1990s, as South Africa experienced its first democratic election.
The role of the youth in bringing the Apartheid regime to its knees has been celebrated every year on 16 June.
Today, it has been 40 years since the Soweto Uprising, and 22 years since South Africa became a constitutional democracy.
Our Constitution guarantees all citizens various rights and freedoms previously unheard of. All South Africans, regardless of race, are now able to participate in the political process, own property, and express themselves freely.
Recently, however, particular sections of our society have perverted this sacred role of the youth in defending basic human dignity.
Many of you, I’m sure, are aware of the recent protests which erupted across South African university campuses, collectively known as the FeesMustFall movement. They were preceded by a group known as RhodesMustFall, which, earlier this year, engaged in revolting activities, such as sexual assault, book burnings, and the destruction of art.
A RhodesMustFall leader even racially humiliated a waitress, telling her that he will not give her a tip because she was white, and whites owed blacks land.
The RhodesMustFall protesters believe that the government must take an active role in socially engineering South Africans out of what they consider to be an ‘Apartheid mindset’.
The FeesMustFall movement, on the other hand, has one concern: they believe they are entitled to free education at the taxpayer’s expense.
Contrast this with Elizabeth Mathope, a Soweto parent in 1976, who said:
“We pay for the education of our children, and we should [thus] determine their education.”
What is the common theme with these two modern youth movements? They seek, like their counterparts in America, to give the government more power over the citizens of this country.
Whereas the Soweto protesters of 1976 sought self-determination at their schools and a respect for localised decision-making, the ‘trendy tyrants’ of today, as I like to call them, want all decision-making returned to the hands of the central government.
Think back to King, St. Augustine, and Aquinas – is it an unjust law of nature, to expect of people to pay for the services they use? Of course not – it is the seeds of socialism that has been planted in the minds of our youth. That is why I said, earlier, that the anti-Apartheid narrative has been hijacked by people who, in fact, actually agree with that ideology.
I believe this is a problem that the entire world is currently experiencing: a large section of the youth are confused, and prefer socialism and statism, over individual freedom.
However, we need only look to places like Hong Kong and Brazil to see the converse side of this. In Hong Kong the youth staged large protests against a power grab by the central Chinese communist government. In Brazil, youth protests led by our very own Students For Liberty have manifested the widespread disillusionment of Brazilians of their socialist government.
The Arab Spring which started in Africa a few years ago was widely considered to be a movement of the youth, who were sick and tired of endless oppressive, undemocratic government. And although the Arab Spring was not a resounding success, it does speak to the fact that the youth continue to be the main agents for change in Africa and around the world.
A young South African libertarian, right after the event, started a crowdfunding campaign to support the waitress who was abused by the RhodesMustFall leader. It reached into the thousands of dollars by the time it closed.
There are certainly good stories to tell.
Students For Liberty exists to educate, develop, and empower the next generation of leaders who will drive the world into a freer future. A tenet of our vision is:
“Young people are the key to the future. They can drive innovation today and are the ones who will become the leaders in society tomorrow.”
It is up to us to succeed where our predecessors have failed. They failed to transfer to our generation the love of freedom which they held in their struggles against tyranny. All our parents and grandparents lived during times of strife, and at the root of every conflict are the competing philosophies of liberty and authority.
The authoritarian philosophy has largely taken a new form. When the Cold War ended the authoritarians knew they could not win a military conflict. ISIS, al-Shabaab, and Boko Haram are experiencing this today. At best, they are succeeding in defending their gains, but this is an unsustainable model. Instead, authoritarians have been infecting the minds of the youth, who they hope will establish tyranny through democratic means.
Our struggle is very much a struggle between two factions of the youth. Whereas in 1970s South Africa, most activist young persons had the same noble goal in mind, today, we are at odds with one another. But this is a battle that must be fought.
As youth, we are the future of our societies in politics, business, science, culture, and education. There is no better time than now, as students at university, to realize this, and to do something about it. Take up the mantle of liberty and human dignity and defend it unapologetically.