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Teens' lives intersect in Soweto for teenagers in divided society

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 20/8/2016 (308 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

The Soweto Uprising in June 1976 proved to be a seminal event that cracked the structure of apartheid in South Africa. The protest by 20,000 black schoolchildren against the enforced teaching of the Afrikaans language sparked mounting protests and actions that finally caused the race-based system to crumble in 1990.

In her first novel, aimed at young adolescents, but also suitable for adult reading, the Vancouver-based Arushi Raina has written a fictional account of four teenagers from different sections of the divided society in the days before the uprising. It’s a credible story of how lives intersect and how events can change lives as part of the trajectory of history.

It’s also a reminder about how single events can become flashpoints for change. Blacks linked the Afrikaans language with the oppressive Boer-dominated government. Opposition to the new decree simmered. Zanele, a young teenager, gets involved in the underground movement, but the restrictive pass laws that controlled the movements of blacks and the brutality meted out by the police make her involvement dangerous. She keeps her participation a secret from her sister and mother.

Jack, meanwhile, represents the privileged white world. Raina illustrates the contrasts well, the normalcy of inequality. His roomy house in the suburbs is a world away from the tin shack in the township Zanele’s mother leaves behind every day to work as a maid for Jack’s family. Jack is his parents’ hope, headed for an advanced education at Oxford, but he questions his future when he becomes involved with Zanele.

A massive national security service propped up the apartheid system. But the external police force relied upon spies within the townships to provide information about resistance organizers and to foster a continuing sense of mistrust among community members. Poverty drove many people to rat on their friends, as Thabo, Zanele’s school friend, does to get some cash and bolster his status in a gang.

Caught in between were people of Indian heritage who were allowed to succeed on the fringes of white society. The result was some Indian South Africans identified with the white-dominated government, while others felt the sting of discrimination and limitation. Meena, an aspiring doctor, is willing to give up her dreams to participate in the struggle against apartheid, while her father does whatever he can to keep their household (and especially his daughter) away from the prying eyes of the police.

The characters’ conversations, which include words in Zulu and Afrikaans (explained in a glossary), are in clipped phrases; their oblique references reflect their suspicion about each other or concern that someone could be listening. The challenges of organizing an opposition action amid fear, internal conflicts and the physical difficulties of movement and communication made what happened an unlikely surprise. Masses of children converged in a demonstration and were attacked by police using guns and armored vehicles. Four decades later, the death toll is unknown. The government tallied 23 dead, but others claim as many as 700 people, mostly children and teenagers, were killed.

Raina brings the characters together in a dramatic, if not unusual climax, but it shows how the past intrudes at random moments. She lived in South Africa as a child during the time of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in the 1990s. She observes that although progress has been made in terms of racial mixing in certain segments of society, such as education, the serving class is still black.

The deepening economic crisis is increasing disparities between races again, which may cause the ghosts of the past to cause upheaval in the years to come.

Harriet Zaidman is a teacher-librarian in Winnipeg.

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