June 16th, 1976 – The Soweto Uprising: A Perspective On What Matters To Today’s Youth And Women In Business

I was six years old on the 16th of June 1976, living in the white suburb of Johannesburg, South Africa. I was six years old on June 16th, 1976, too young to really understand the meaning and cut of the word ‘ashamed’, too young to have a word like ‘apartheid’ be part of my vocabulary, too young to live the essence of the word ‘outraged’.

I was six years old when Colonel Kleingeld drew his handgun and fired a shot, causing panic and chaos amongst the thousands of students that had carefully planned a peaceful protest against having to learn their classes through instruction in the Afrikaans language in school. Students started screaming and running. More gunshots were fired. The police set their dogs on the children, who responded by stoning the dogs to death. The police then began to shoot directly at the children.

At six, I was just under half the age of 13-year old Hector Pieterson – one of the first students to be shot dead at Orlando West High School, who then became the symbol of the Soweto uprising. At six, I doubt that I could count to 700, much less conceptualize that many people dying as the violence spread and escalated across the country as students and other demonstrators were attacked by the police.

My husband’s name is Steve, and in the first few years of knowing each other, he would often ask me questions about South Africa. Most of the time I would respond as briefly as possible, if at all. I preferred to brush it off. To be quite frank I preferred not to talk about it at all. However, about five years ago, I started to hanker after South Africa. I missed it, I cried when I saw the preview of Invictus, I needed to go back and find a way to tie the pieces of my life together. I had moved to the United States all on my own in 1996. I had left that life behind. Quite simply, the fact is that I was ashamed.

I was ashamed that I had grown up in a country where the institution of apartheid ruled. I was proud of the dismantling of apartheid that occurred in my later teenage years, I was thrilled to participate in the first truly democratic general election in 1994 which marked the end of apartheid, but the shame still sat heavily on and within me. While I never believed in Apartheid nor supported it, I was part of the white community, so I can’t help but feel that I am still accountable for the wrongs of Apartheid. Last year November going back to South Africa with my husband (it was his first time going there at all) for the first time since leaving in 1996 marked for me the true beginning of finding a way to integrate these distinct parts of my life together in a way that is truly, meaningfully, uniquely and positively me. How ironic it was that during the second week of our trip, I received an email inviting me to a dinner at the South African Consulate in Chicago with the South African Ambassador to the US just two days after we would return back to Chicago. So on the Tuesday night, just 48 hours after arriving back from South Africa, we were sitting down for dinner at the South African Consulate in Chicago. It marked a milestone in my life, the point where I started to do a variety of things to take action on integrating those parts of my life together. And so it was that I was back at the Consulate again last Thursday, commemorating what is now known as Youth Day in South Africa, in remembrance of the events of 1976.

In commemoration of Youth Day, the Consulate had organized a panel of leaders in various youth related organizations in Chicago. The general theme and topic of discussion amongst the panel and the audience was along the lines of ‘What matters to our youth? What makes a difference to them? The context surrounding the question was what lessons are we drawing from the youth of 1976? Those young people in 1976 cared so passionately about the issues of the day that they took a stand to drive change. Today’s youth in South Africa, some of them weren’t even born yet when those events unfolded in 1976. So they often find it difficult to relate to many of those issues. Kids that were born in South Africa after 1994, when equal rights and freedoms existed, don’t identify with what happened June 16th, 1976. So the best we can do is find the relevance of the courage and spirit of the youth of 1976 to see if that courage and spirit  can be used by the youth of today  to address current issues.

Panel at the South African Consulate

Chris Hani was the leader of the South African Communist Party and chief of staff of Umkhonto we Sizwe, the armed wing of the African National Congress (ANC). He was a fierce opponent of the apartheid government, and was assassinated on 10 April 1993. Eight days before Chris Hani was assassinated, he was interviewed. In the interview, on the eve of the 1994 democratic election, he said that South Africa faced a ‘new enemy’ and a ‘new struggle’. That enemy, he said, was socio-economic; it was about the struggle for jobs, houses, schools, so that we can build a society that cares. He anticipated the major challenges we would experience as a democracy when he said, “I think, finally, the ANC will have to fight a new enemy. That enemy would be another struggle to make freedom and democracy worthwhile to ordinary South Africans. Our biggest enemy would be what we do in the field of socio-economic restructuring;  creation of jobs; building of houses, schools, medical facilities, overhauling our education, eliminating illiteracy, building a society which cares, and fighting corruption and moving into the gravy train of using power, government position to enrich individuals.  We must build a different culture in this country, different from Africa, different from the Nationalist Party.  And that culture should be one of service to people.”

It struck me, as I sat listening to the panel talk about the youth of the past and the youth of today, about what matters and what makes a difference, that it paralleled so many conversations I have with women of different generational groups. Baby Boomer women feel that women of younger generations that are in and entering the workforce today don’t relate to many of the issues that the Boomer women faced as they were looking to move forwards and upwards in their careers. Younger generation women often don’t identify with the perspectives, approach and style of more older women in the workforce, because in many instances they haven’t had to fight the same battles, or even if they have, they are doing so with more support, more advocacy, even more policies and tools to aid them along their way. However, across all generational groups we still have a long way to go to see women being represented more broadly at the management and executive levels. The issues are not all behind us, it’s just a different road we now travel.

The parallel struck further as I listened carefully to specific things that the panel was calling out in terms of what matters and what makes a difference to the youth of today in terms of their ability to succeed and make an impact. They articulated if they had one magic gift what they would wish to give to the youth of today. Again I felt their list mirrored the list of what we would hear women of any generational group – Boomers, Gen X or Gen Y – saying if asked the question what mattered to them 35 plus years ago and what matters to them now, and what we would wish for today if we could gift something to younger women. Here is their list as it applies to youth (bolded) and my interpretation as it applies to women:

  • Self-esteem and the confidence to do anything you want to do: No matter what your career, know that you are remarkable and have great talent, and that as a woman you bring unique and special leadership skills to the table. Embrace them and stand tall and proud at the table, rising to every challenge with the confidence and spirit that only a woman can embody.
  • Self-accountability: You must own your career. You must own advocating for yourself. While it is important that others advocate for you too, the fact is it starts with you advocating for yourself. If you won’t do it for yourself, you cannot expect someone else to do it with you and on behalf of you. If you see an opportunity for a development program, go ask to be sent on it. If you see a position you are interested in, present yourself as a candidate. Own your own future.
  • Find a cause and stick to it: Become known for something special, and make sure that it is something you really believe in. The greatest successes are tied to the greatest passions. You hear it again and again: ‘You are so good at what you do. I can see how passionate you are about it.’ Find your passion, build your career around that and you will have great success.
  • Identity i.e. know yourself: Clearly know and define who you are. Be able to tell your story in a way that immediately reflects the essence of who you are and the value you bring to the table in a way that gets people rooting for you. Ensure that day in and day out you represent yourself in a way that is authentic and consistent with your personal brand, so that no-one ever has cause to doubt who you really are and what you stand for.
  • Social and emotional fitness: EQ matters more than IQ. You can be the smartest person in the room, but if you don’t have the people skills and ability to effectively manage and lead others, you won’t get to where you are aiming to be. Make sure that you invest the time and resources to develop your people and leadership skills as well as your technical skills.
  • Nobody’s an island, everyone needs help: It’s too hard to try to do it on your own, so don’t! Reach out and ask for support. Provide support to others. Be empowered and build a connected community for yourself and for others.
  • I see you; you matter: It doesn’t matter how far you have come in your career, don’t forget your responsibility to see other women that are on their career quest and to help them however you can. It pains me when I hear a woman say they don’t think they can make the time, they are just too busy right now. Open your eyes, see the women around you, and make it your responsibility to advocate for them. They matter.
  • Perseverance, self-will and resilience: Don’t give up, ever! The road has not been easy, nor will it be easy in the future. There are still many challenges for women in the road ahead as they pursue their careers. To our wonderful millennials out there, don’t kid yourselves, the work is far from done. You need to continue to make change stick and to open additional doors for the women that will follow you. When you hit a wall, push through and keep on going. You will emerge victorious on the other side.

I was forty-three years old on the 16th of June, 2013, living in Chicago, a United States citizen, but still a South African at my core. I was forty-three years old on June 16th, 2013, having spent the first 26 years of my life in South Africa, and the next seventeen years in the United States. I know I can be ashamed, I understand the consequences of an Apartheid regime, and I have had my turn at being outraged. But I also know I can be proud of being part of a different future, I understand the power of transformation and change, and I am now having my turn at blending together these two different parts of my life in a way that generates positive impact and change for women across all generations. I am grateful to have been afforded to opportunity to attend the commemoration of Youth Day in South Africa. While the panel may have been focused more towards the topic of youth, I am proud to be able to take those lessons and share the parallels with women. Heed the call, apply the lessons, celebrate what you have today that those who came before did not, and continue to make change for the better for future generations!

  • Traci S. Campberll

    Daniella…in a word “WOW”! This is such a compelling and heartfelt post. Thank you for sharing with us your feelings, insights, and perspectives on growing up in South Africa. There are many lessons and “food for thought” in your prose. Thank you!