S. Africa's black youth assert new authority

Cynthia discovered Soweto's generation gap when her eight-year-old son announced what he wanted to do when he grew up: Get a Soviet-made AK-47 rifle, flee the country, and join the African National Congress. To press the point, he bellowed forth an ANC protest song. The outlawed ANC is the most prominent black nationalist group.

Alice, another Soweto woman, says she discovered the change when a group of youths stopped her car and reprimanded her for buying baby food at a white-owned store. She considers herself lucky: ``I know of a woman who they made drink some fabric-softener she had bought from outside.''

Elsie shivers when her six-year-old son boards his minibus headed for a mixed-race school near Johannesburg. ``I want my child to have a good education,'' she explains. ``But the youths sometimes stone the buses.''

Child rebels -- aged 12 to about 19 -- now virtually run Soweto, the sprawling political capital of black South Africa near Johannesburg.

They call themselves ``the comrades.'' Opposing any form of cooperation with the country's white-minority rulers, they threaten, sometimes beat up, occasionally even ``execute,'' those blacks deemed ``collaborators.''

The hold of traditional sources of authority -- the police, parents, and teachers -- is weakening. Soweto is becoming more politically radical, more violent.

``The comrades feel,'' says Alice, ``that we as parents have not done enough in the political struggle.''

The youths' strength has grown with each fresh clash between protesters and police here and in other black areas. Violent protest to the government's policy of apartheid -- racial segregation -- has claimed an estimated 1,450 lives over the last 19 months.

Parents often sympathize with the children's fury. But they fear it, too. They are torn by the demands of making a living and rearing children -- without betraying anti-apartheid aims they share with their young.

In the struggle to come to terms with the shifting authority, the parents must settle for only the occasional victory. Last weekend -- at a national education conference -- they persuaded student delegates not to resume a boycott of schools. ``The children are back at school now,'' recaps one mother. ``But they're not studying. They are organizing, talking politics and the like.''

A prominent Soweto minister, Cynthia's husband, says that at school assemblies, black-nationalist songs have taken the place of Christian hymns. ``The teachers are scared to oppose this,'' says Cynthia.

Samuel who is a veteran of an earlier Soweto uprising in 1976. It was then that black students first came to the fore of protest politics. He was jailed, then ``banned'' from political activity for five years. Still bitterly opposed to government policy, he has now married, landed a job with a white business in Johannesburg, and begun rearing a son.

``I'm scared,'' he says. ``A few nights ago they burnt down a house in our neighborhood. I fear that, especially as unemployment increases, I could be in trouble merely for having my job or driving a nice car.'' His wife agrees: ``Sometimes I wonder if we were right to bring our child into this world.''

They, and others, say that alongside ``real comrades,'' groups of simple thugs have seized on the unrest to flex their muscles.

For many, deciding how to feel about the comrades is not easy.

One Sowetan adult interviewed is typical. He was a teacher during the 1976 unrest but now works in Johannesburg. He has never been involved in politics. But he says: ``How can we oppose what they stand for? It is logical: they are kids who have seen the expectations of 1976, kept hearing that things will get better and seen no real evidence of this.

``The reason they kill black policemen is that they're tired of watching other blacks undermine the struggle. I don't like the method. But I understand why. These youths have decided they have nothing to lose.

``My concern is that, though I'm working in Johannesburg to make a living and provide for my family, I may be seen as a sell-out.''

The comrades have established a pseudo-government, and an official language, of their own.

The Zulu word for ``target'' is a mainstay. It refers to homes, cars, or other property deemed politically suspect. The word was shouted by a streetcorner group of teenagers when this white reporter drove by Monday with Cynthia and her husband.

The shout seemed in good nature: Cynthia's husband, as a cleric and community leader, belongs to the one group of parents that still commands some authority.

But as another Soweto woman explains, the label is more often a serious one. ``When there's a funeral for someone killed in the unrest, the comrades go house to house and get cars to use for the funeral. They say the cars are ``targets.'' They bring them back -- if not always in the same shape as when taken.''

The comrades, she says, operate in groups that each owe allegiance to a ``president.'' Some presidents have been killed or jailed during the political unrest. Others are alive and well. ``You can tell whether you're dealing with comrades, or mere trouble-makers, by asking them who their president is.''

Their authority is sometimes informal, always clear.

For instance, word has begun to spread that there may be a renewed boycott of stores outside Soweto.

``It's still rumor. But if and when it happens, we'll know almost instantly. The kids will know -- our children -- and we'll know from them.'' At their request, the names of several Sowetans interviewed have been changed.

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