“What Were We Fighting For?”

On the 16th of June 1976, approximately 20,000 young people, armed with a list of grievances and concerns, gathered on Vilakazi Street in Orlando, Soweto – one of South Africa’s biggest townships. Their plan was to march to the local soccer stadium and then on to the Transvaal Department of Education.

The main issue they wanted to address was the Afrikaans Medium Decree of 1974.  It revoked the right for black pupils to study using their mother tongue and forced them to instead learn in either English or Afrikaans.  These young people, who had endured abuse upon abuse by the Apartheid enforcing Afrikaner government, had decided that enough was enough.  Sadly though, what was meant to be a peaceful protest turned violent when police arrived and tried to get the pupils to disperse using teargas.  Chaos ensued and 13 year old Hector Pieterson was killed.  As a result of Nzima’s photo, Pieterson soon became the symbol and standout memory of what is now known as “The Soweto Uprising”.

Soweto Uprising

In 2011, on a public holiday – Youth Day – dedicated to the memory of these young people and others who stood courageously against racial inequality, this photo (right) went viral.

The result:  Outrage and disgust at what youth of today would do to the memory of those who had gone before and bled before, and the inevitable question of why.

Nzima was approached by The New Age journalist, Tom Nkosi, for his feelings: “I was shocked when I saw the picture and I immediately called my wife to show her. She was devastated by the insensitivity that these young people displayed. This is an insult to the people who lost their loved ones,” an angry Nzima said.

Sithole [the young girl crying in the original photo], who works as a tour guide at the Hector Pieterson Museum in Soweto, said the youth of today don’t understand the importance of the events of 1976.

“Our youth don’t know the history of the Soweto Uprising. They don’t understand because they were not there.”

It is this last statement on which I would like to focus: “They don’t understand because they were not there.”

One of the recorded comments on Facebook went on to say that they viewed this as a yard-stick measuring the extent to which youth of today are disconnected with the issues of the past.  In addition to this, I would like to propose that this parody not only indicates this, but also the level of misunderstanding our leaders have regarding how to connect and motivate the next generation.

It is clear that if “[the youth] were not there” then one cannot expect them to respond towards these events in the same manner that older generations might.  If this is the case, then why do our current political leaders continue to think that repeating these liberation and struggle messages of the past will work like they did before?

One view comes from Dr Mamphela Ramphele, outspoken South African academic and businesswoman, turned politician, in her Sunday Times article, “Drop Struggle Politics” (20 Sept 2011):

“Former leaders of liberation movements tended to see themselves as the natural, entitled leaders of governments in the post-colonial period, with insufficient thought to the possibility of a mismatch between the skills required for governance and those needed for fighting for freedom.”

“Prince Mashele, in The Death of our Society, puts the blame squarely on the failure to acknowledge “the crippling trap that a number of post-colonial African societies have proven incapable of escaping: heroism”.

“Heroism is defined here as “a way of thinking that makes multitudes of people believe that their social, political and economic fates depend on the actions or benevolence of special individuals in society who possess extraordinary abilities and powers that are beyond ordinary citizens”.

So why did a few youth choose to demean this historical event in such a manner?  Perhaps it was not so much an act of ignominy as it was a statement of free will beyond South Africa’s ‘heroism’ leadership culture.  Perhaps it is a symptom of a new era beginning to emerge, an era where “the citizen [is] back at the centre of the political process — where he/she belongs.”

If this is the case, then we need to start asking new questions:

“What must we change?”  “Where is our future?” “How do we get there?”

In addition to this, we must acknowledge that there are generational differences that exist.  The most notable of these is documented in the research of two psychologists, Kali Trzesniewski and Brent Donellan.  In their paper, “Rethinking ‘Generation Me’ ”, they highlight two issues that all of us must work through as we lead the rising generation:

Decreasing Trust

Given the abuse of power of governments across the world, the failure of politicians to live up to their promises, and the ongoing reports of those elected or promoted into positions of authority exploiting the privileges their offices entrust them with, is it any wonder the rising generation feel less and less confidence towards those in leadership positions?  We must not think that it affects only a small few.  This is a generational issue.

As a result, we need to find a way to counter these feelings.  It begins with consistency.  Trust and respect cannot be demanded, and gone are the days when our position automatically entitled us to such.

Increasing Desensitization

We live in a time where news and information comes at us from all directions all the time.  Sadly, much of what we read, hear and see is negative and degrading.  While we have attempted to limit exposure to violence, pornographic and lude imagery, and ever worsening language in movies by enforcing rating systems, nothing has protected and is protecting rising generations from the constant flow of negative information through news media channels.  As a result, when hundreds of people lose their lives in an earthquake, or another bomb goes off somewhere in the world, to the current 18 to 35 year olds it is business as usual.

So how do we lead a generation whose first point of engagement is to cynically question our motives?  How do we a lead a generation who, to survive emotionally and mentally, have had to care less about what is happening in the world around them?

It isn’t to sing liberation songs.  Nor is it to harp on the honours and accomplishments of the past.

This generation wants tangible goals.  They want to be heard.  They want to feel secure.  And they need to feel valued.

In the end, whether in our workplace or in the political arena, if we aren’t moving on and asking new questions, if we aren’t searching out new frontiers, and if we aren’t supplying to the needs of our followers, then “What were we fighting for?”


This article was featured in the

The Workplace

Do you recognize some areas in yourself or your team that need improvement? Email Adriaan on adriaan@leadershipplatform.com for more on creating “Leadership Fit” leaders that generate successful movement (performance) inside your organisation.




Louis has been fanatically endeavoring to uncover universal leadership principles and models for longer than most of us have been alive. He is an author, leadership expert, father, grandfather, and the Co-Founder of Leadership Platform.

Call: +27 (0)12 653 3022
Email: info@leadershipplatform.com

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Leadership Platform is a specialist leadership development consultancy, focusing on creating measurable impact to the bottom line through the enhancement of leadership understanding and engagement.


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