The imagery is perfect: Nelson Mandela, with Coretta Scott King at his side, invoking the words of Martin Luther King Jr. to herald South Africa's first democratically elected government.
I can see the TV spots: "Jubilant South Africans celebrating the privilege of having a voice in their own country." Then the pitch: "Our brothers and sisters in South Africa are exercising their right to vote after years of bloodshed. . . . Can you do less? Rock the Vote in '96!"
But it will take a lot more than invoking the connection between South Africa's struggle and the U.S. civil-rights movement to bring my disaffected generation to the polls.
Not that we don't see the connection. In the 1960s the pictures of African-Americans being attacked by dogs, fire hoses and angry mobs of white people for wanting to be equal citizens inspired a generation of activists to spearhead the struggle against white supremacy in this country. Those same leaders also played a key role in dismantling South African apartheid. Thanks to the tenacity of African-Americans like Jesse Jackson and Randall Robinson, institutions across the country divested themselves of holdings in South Africa. Rep. Ron Dellums, D-Calif., wrote the 1986 anti-apartheid act that set in motion tough sanctions against Pretoria.
The irony is that while we celebrate the political victory of Nelson Mandela, voting and democracy today mean almost nothing to the young people Mr. Dellums and other black leaders are charged to represent. Can you blame us? Mr. Dellums' Oakland has had a black political class since the late 1970s, yet the decay of its poor black neighborhoods has only deepened. The same is true for black urban centers across the nation. Few youth see political power as the magic wand their counterparts saw it as in the 1960s.
Maybe we need to start all over again with a clean slate, says Joel Carey, a 22-year-old San Francisco resident who doesn't vote. He thinks South Africa has a chance because "it's a new government. Ours is so corrupt and into special interests that it ,, turns me off the whole process."
Many adults argue that what young people need most is another leader, someone of the stature of a Mandela or a King. But Generation X doesn't believe in political role models anymore. "I learn from everyone, but I'm my own leader," an African-American teen commented in a discussion about political role models on Martin Luther King Jr. birthday.
"Just about all the leaders we've looked up to have either been murdered, jailed or been discredited," another young woman added, reeling off a string of names from Malcolm X to Mike Tyson. "Or they've self- destructed," said another. "The only people we can trust is people who've experienced what we've been through."
For the next decade, anyway, the X ideology will focus on individual relationships among friends, families and communities, filling a void of intimacy that political power can't fill. Whether we're treating people the way we would like to be treated strikes many of us as infinitely more important than whether we vote or not. Parenting each other seems a much more practical way of making our streets safe than public policy solutions.
South Africans have a chance to build a government that is responsive to their young people. In this country, the chance has already been lost. There are four times more young black males in prison than in higher education in California. Who in the public realm is ready to really listen to our voices? Even our own "leaders" only one generation removed would rather hold press conferences to discredit our music, hip hop, than consider our version of reality as we see it.
Elections are coming up again and I'm just waiting for new pictures the spin doctors are going to use to lure us to the polls. I hope this time they'll get Janet Jackson to dress up in the flag instead of Madonna.
Kevin Weston, a hip hop artist, wrote this commentary for Pacific News Service.