Opinionista Lwando Xaso 2 June 2020

Ten lessons for Youth Month in this time of pandemic

To make it out of any crisis better than we were before, we need stamina. We need to reconcile ourselves with the long game. We are told that the effects of this pandemic will be with us for years to come.

Two years ago at this time, I wrote about what we can learn from the youth of 1976. This year the activism of 1976 is evoked at a time when we are facing a particularly dim year not only domestically but the world over. From my study of our storied history, and from my observations of life in the past couple of months, this is what I have learnt from the confines of my own home:

  1. Unity cannot be invoked in a time of crisis, it is something that we have to consciously cultivate at all times, not just when it is convenient.
  2. We all, as human beings invested in existing in a world that is just, equal, free and peaceful, need to align our daily actions and values with the vision of the world as we would like to see it. We need to ask ourselves daily whether our actions steer the world closer to the vision that we all say we subscribe to. A lot of us hail our Constitution, hail Nelson Mandela and his principles and the struggle for freedom, but we do not act consistently to what we say we prize.
  3. We cannot care about injustice only to the extent that it directly affects us. That is pure tribalism. Winnie Mandela fought against the pass laws even before they were applied to women. Caring, for whichever reason that may resonate personally with each person, is a good start but it short-changes the capacity our hearts have to be compassionate. We can expand our heart space for others and their nuanced struggles. This will eventually serve us in the long run when that same compassion is reflected back to us.
  4. Compassion needs to be given freely. We cannot force people to care the way we want them to care about important societal issues. We cannot demand our friends act. No one wants to be the recipient of begrudged giving or participation. We should not wait for an invitation in order to get involved. And we should be on the frontlines because we want to be, not because we were dragged there. The law can prescribe what people should do, but in our interpersonal relationships and communities we can only advocate, inform and also voice our desires –  we cannot coerce people into caring. Let people make their own choices in the face of injustice, and we can make our choice regarding our association with those people in light of their chosen course of action.
  5. Identity politics matter. A crisis will have differing results and impact on us depending on what group we belong to. Although the pandemic does not discriminate, those who have more resources at their disposal have the means to afford themselves greater protection and comfort at this time. It is noticeably clear that the pandemic has hit marginalised communities in our societies disproportionally hard. For example, members of the LBGTQI community may find physical distancing particularly difficult if they have been rejected by their families, but are forced to be in the same space as those who disapprove of them. Those who live in informal settlements may also find it hard to physically distance. This means policies that are underwritten by the rhetoric that “a rising tide lifts all boats” will ultimately fail those who are not seen by our institutions and politics.
  6. We have to be invested in knowing history otherwise we will not understand the context of today’s struggles. This is not just about knowing our own history – it’s about searching for history from all vantage points. It’s about seeking answers, for example, on why we find ourselves here today. Why is there such a huge inequality gap? These questions can be richly informed by history, which can in turn richly inform our response to today’s most pressing issues in the most creative way possible.
  7. Even when it seems like it will not put food on the table, there is always space for revolutionary hope. A hope that is not, in Barack Obama’s words, “blind optimism. Not about ignoring the enormity of the task ahead or the roadblocks that stand in our path. It’s not about sitting on the sidelines or shirking from a fight.” A revolutionary hope is one that is informed by the example of the youth of 1976 – that we can make a way out of no way because we have done so many times before. It’s hope evidenced of our own capacity as history-makers.
  8. To make it out of any crisis better than we were before, we need stamina. We need to reconcile ourselves with the long game. We are told that the effects of this pandemic will be with us for years to come. We need leaders in our communities who will have the stamina to stay the course and not lose heart at every unexpected obstacle. I often think of the stamina that enabled Oliver Tambo and many others to travel across the world over decades to build the global anti-apartheid movement. Even after his debilitating heart attack, Tambo remained committed.
  9. As Angela Davis instructs us, revolutionaries still have to be realists. And as my professor in university used to caution me, “you cannot unchop a tree.” Certain things in our society have unfortunately happened, they can be lamented but they cannot be wished away. In our realism we have to understand that we work in a context that is not only shaped by our local politics and what is possible therein, but by globalism. Progress sometimes is not as radical as we would like, but it is still possible to shift things despite our limitations, and that too matters.
  10. We are bound by the mutual interest of realising the promise of South Africa. We all want to see our country rise. The pandemic has reminded us that if we do not all play our part, no matter how small, then mutually assured destruction is what we will reckon with. DM
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