On Saturday, South Africans of all races will be celebrating Youth Day. It used to be called Soweto Day, marking the occasion, exactly 25 years ago, when police opened fire on students participating in a protest march in Soweto (southwestern townships), near Johannesburg, leaving many students dead.
The post-apartheid government changed the name of the public holiday so as to depoliticize the occasion and encourage the young people in this "rainbow nation" to join in building a new spirit of unselfish sharing.
Bill Bennot is an American who, since 1987, has been pastor to hundreds of college students of all races in South Africa. He told me in Johannesburg recently that, despite AIDS, the disturbing crime rate, and the country's continuing economic woes, this new spirit is already well established - certainly among the black students in his church.
"They have passion, they have faith. They're intelligent, they love God, they love their communities. They want to make a difference.
"I'm filled with hope for South Africa because I'm working with a generation of young people who have godly ambitions. They've got purpose, they have opportunities they never had before, and they're not daunted by the new challenges during this time of transition."
He quoted verses from Isaiah that encapsulate this spirit: "The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.... They will rebuild the ancient ruins and restore the places long devastated; they will renew the ruined cities that have been devastated for generations" (61:1, 4).
Pastor Bennot suggested that the phrase "born again," often associated with rebuilding, is usually seen in the context of one's personal, spiritual salvation. But he commented, "Suddenly these young South Africans see this rebirth touching their communities and making a difference in a way nothing else has done.
"The doors are wide open, and there are hundreds and hundreds of young people who are sharp, smart - and teachable. They're humble. They want to learn. They want to be part of a team. They are willing to roll up their sleeves and do whatever it takes to build on the miracle of 1994 when apartheid crumbled and they experienced firsthand the birth of a new nation. They still have to find the money for their school fees, eat sensibly, pay bills, and face all the other situations everybody has to. But when you are 21 or 22 years old and you have a relationship with God and you believe His Word, it's encouraging to know that God's Word works every day, and not just on Sunday!"
That God's Word works was certainly the message of the Bible's account of three young Hebrew men. They had been taken from their homes in Judah and exiled. They stayed faithful to their religious beliefs and were groomed to serve as administrators in the province of Babylon.
Their commitment to God was so firm that when the king decreed that everyone should worship the image of gold he had set up, they defied him.
Their quiet disobedience landed them in a blazing furnace from which their faith saved them. So complete was their delivery, the Bible says, that not a hair of their heads was singed (see Dan., chap. 3).
Many courageous South Africans came through the experience of apartheid apparently unsinged, and in the notable case of Nelson Mandela, without bitterness. They could truly say with King Nebuchadnezzar after he'd witnessed the Hebrews' survival in the fire, "How mighty [are God's] wonders! His kingdom is an eternal kingdom; his dominion endures from generation to generation" (Dan. 4:3).
I found that spirit present in my conversations with young people in Gauteng and in KwaZulu-Natal in February. They endorsed Pastor Bennot's optimism, and left me in no doubt that they are committed to making the lofty vision of Youth Day 2001 a reality.
Beloved children, the world
has need of you ... it needs your innocence, unselfishness, faithful affection, uncontaminated lives.
Mary Baker Eddy
(founder of the Monitor)
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor