Youth Day and Reconciliation Lunch

Today is Youth Day in South Africa and a public holiday. This day was set aside to commemorate a dark event in this nation’s history: The Soweto Uprising that began on June 16, 1976. Young students and their allies took to the streets of Soweto (the largest Township in South Africa, located in Johannesburg) on this day 40 years ago to protest the government changing the official teaching language of some parts of public education to Afrikaans. This was perceived by many people to put black students at a disadvantage, as their focus would shift from understanding the content to deciphering the language of instruction.

Police responded to this protest with shocking brutality. The official number of people killed is 176, despite police reports at the time that only 23 had died, and others claiming that as many as 700 were killed. This is the photo most closely associated with the Uprising:

Hector Pieterson

Hector Pieterson, a 13 year-old boy killed by police in Soweto on June 16, 1976 (photo credit Sam Nzima)

Other communities joined in the protests, and by the end of 1976 more than 600 people had died. Although it was another 14 years before Nelson Mandela was released from prison, these protests forever changed people’s acceptance of apartheid rule in South Africa.

I think I have mentioned before that there is a white family living in the Township. They moved here in 1998, inspired by the spirit of reconciliation and a desire to do what was within their power to help heal the wounds of the past. This is so extraordinary that even today, 18 years later, their friends in Town introduce them as “the people that live in the Township.”

Every Wednesday the Lady of the House hosts a Reconciliation Lunch. She serves a full lunch (honestly, I can’t have breakfast on Wednesdays anymore) and the doors to her home are open to anyone in the community who would like to attend. Anyone. I have been going regularly and I don’t know that I have ever seen fewer than 30 people in attendance. Imagine. Opening your home to 30 friends and total strangers every single week and feeding them until they’re stuffed.

Steam bread, township lunch, South Africa

Steam bread and stew. Delicious traditional South African food.

The idea of the Lunch is to sit and eat with people that you would normally not have an opportunity to sit and eat with and learn about one another’s lives. The Lady of the House has a topic to discuss every week and everyone at the table must share their perspectives on the topic. Sometimes the topic is light and fluffy, for instance ‘talk about your best friend growing up and what you did together’, sometimes it can be quite intense and heartbreaking, such as when she asked us to share about our experiences with crime.

Sometimes I think the topic is going to be fluffy, as in ‘talk about your mother’ following Mother’s Day, and I end up crying at the table.

I always learn something. This week we talked about our hometowns. Several people spoke about growing up in the Township and how much it has changed in terms of safety since they were kids. A student from the University spoke about growing up in Joburg and living behind electric fences and having their family dogs poisoned by people trying to break in. One lady spoke about how lovely her hometown was because she was able to ride her bike to and from school without worry. That one really struck me. It never occurred to me that it would be a privilege to be able to ride your bike as a child without having to worry about what might happen.

I don’t feel that I contributed much to the conversation this week. Barrie was…nice?

I would love to ask the Lady of the House if she would make one Lunch topic about tourism, but I won’t because I don’t want to take away from the objective of the Lunch, even though I know it would be an amazing discussion. As it is I feel very lucky to have met such incredible people and to have had the opportunity to learn about the community in such a special way. On this Youth Day it is nice to reflect that the simple pleasure of sitting down and sharing a meal with one’s neighbours is no longer impossible, just special.

Playing dominoes in the Township, Cape Town, South Africa

Local dudes and students from the University playing dominoes together

12 thoughts on “Youth Day and Reconciliation Lunch

  1. This woman sounds truly remarkable. What a privilege to be part of this experience!

    The years of apartheid are part of my youth, including the shock and horror of the Soweto Uprising. As a student at the time, it was inconceivable to me that students would be simply *murdered* in the streets by the police.
    You’re right – when I compare my youth to their’s, there would be nothing to discuss without feeling a sense of … what? Shame, perhaps?

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    • She is absolutely amazing. I have learned a lot from her and her husband. And it is so hard to try and reconcile my experiences with theirs – shame is a big part of it. And shame in that I can’t even imagine it too. One woman spoke at the lunch about hiding people in their house who were running away from the police. I don’t know where to put that in my brain.

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  2. Meghan….I know your time there is growing short but I have enjoyed so much reading about your experiences and how you process each of them. I told you that I would experience it vicariously through you since I, unlike you, am not brave enough to take that on by myself. Travel safe and hopefully I will have an opportunity to see you when you return.

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  3. What an inspiring person this woman is. Imagine if we hosted these kinds of lunches in neighbourhoods across our planet. I suspect there would be a whole new level of understanding, despite our differences.

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    • I agree! My Dutch friend was talking about trying to start up something similar in her home community. I think it has taken years of patience and persistence for the Reconciliation Lunch to get to where it’s at now, which is pretty incredible as well πŸ™‚

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  4. What a wonderful woman — and a great way to bring people together. I remember the Soweto massacre, probably because I was about the same age as many of the students. It had a huge impact not only on me, but on many people. In New Zealand, it strengthened the anti-a partied movement and helped bring record numbers of people out to protest against the 1981 Springbok tour. We didn’t stop the tour sadly, but I like to think that our protests helped in some way to ultimately end apartheid.

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    • I agree, she is wonderful πŸ™‚ And thank you for sharing your experience! I don’t think I realized what a tremendous global opposition to apartheid there was at the time, as I really only became aware of the tail end of it. It is inspiring to know that people everywhere will rise up and speak out against evil even if it has no direct impact on their own lives πŸ™‚

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