When I was 11 years old in 1976, protesting high school students reignited a movement for justice in the country of my birth, South Africa. Now I’m an American mom of twin teenagers whom I’m proud to call activists. On Saturday I’ll join their protest in the youth-led March for Our Lives. I’m also a professor who studies political sociology; I see contemporary lessons those long-ago school kids from Soweto, South Africa, have to offer students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas and around the U.S.
Soweto 1976: Black high school students, racially segregated by law, took to the streets to oppose unfair schooling policies. Police responded with gunfire. Many died then and in the protests that followed. For survivors, torture, imprisonment or exile often ensued. That children’s protest was a pivotal moment in the slow end to apartheid, South Africa’s system of cruel and repressive white minority rule.
Moral clarity shapes the political goals of today’s young American opponents of gun violence, as it did for the youth of ’76. Students know they don’t have to have all the answers to recognize that different laws and policies would have saved their dead peers. Many American school kids and their adult allies understand that bad laws, neglected laws and absent laws enable dangerous people to access lethal weapons. Our youth demand legislators fix these permissive, lapsed and unenforced laws as one way to prevent future gun deaths in and beyond schools.
A second lesson American youth can take from the Soweto uprising is that they will have to work for change for a long time, into their adult lives. The gun status quo, normalizing assault rifles and distortions like ”guns don’t kill people, people do”, have become part of the political and economic mainstream. Making mass shootings routine did not happen quickly. From Columbine to Marjory Stoneman took 19 years, but the University of Texas at Austin suffered a mass shooting in 1966, well before the attack on Virginia Tech in 2007. Schools, street corners, suicides, churches, concerts and clubs: Random, often mass, gun violence is an ever-present threat. It will take a long time to undo this violent normalcy.
Third, today’s students are teaching many of their parents, teachers and elected leaders to do the right thing. In a widely admired speech, Stoneman Douglas survivor Emma Gonzales admonished adults for their complacency. “If you actively do nothing, people continually end up dead." Her calls of “Shame on you” apply to those who celebrate gun rights over human life, but also to those parents and grandparents who acquiesced over decades as contemporary gun culture became normal. Soweto students too often felt their parents’ generation needed to be shocked out of feeling helpless. They demanded their parents take risks for rights.
As Ms. Gonzales noted, powerful adults try to undermine youth activism, dismissing students as “too young to understand how the government works.” But, she replied, “We call BS. If you agree, register to vote. Contact your local congress people. Give them a piece of your mind. Throw them out.”
Stoneman Douglas students and their peers elsewhere are speaking aloud hard truths many older politicians are scared to utter. South Africa’s youth of 1976 struggled for nearly 30 years to vote and live as free, legally equal citizens in their own country. And, as the democracy-threatening presidencies of Donald Trump and Jacob Zuma indicate, we can’t be complacent in protecting life or liberty.
Superficially the Soweto and Stoneman Douglas students have little in common. But whether black, poor and disenfranchised in historic apartheid South Africa, or diverse, mostly middle class and empowered by the U.S. Constitution in Florida, both groups of young people provide role models to redress social wrongs. Young people and their allies have long helped make the world a better place. Youth activism mattered in the U.S. civil rights movement, and people around the world admire Malala Yousafzai from Pakistan. There are abundant national and international examples of youth improving the world.
Stoneman Douglas students have inspired their peers around the U.S. to stand up for themselves where adults have failed to protect them. On March 14, countless students walked out of class for 17 minutes in city after city, state after state. On March 24, hundreds of thousands of high schoolers and their allies, young and old, will march in Washington and beyond. As in Soweto, the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas remind us that youth can lead in the march for all our lives.
Fran Buntman is a professor of sociology at George Washington University. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.