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:
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.
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.