The most surprisng moment for me yesterday was sitting on the other side of the world watching Malia Obama walk out with her father onto the stage and seeing how tall and mature this little girl looked. Nearly old enough to vote herself, and part of a new generation post-9/11, another kind of generation. The young ones to whom the future belongs. I thought of the son of a close friend of mine, a little boy who has grown up in the course of a year, suddenly taller than his mother and able to think for himself, make up his own mind, choose his own path through life. Generational shift is hard to describe because it is such a bitter-sweet moment for many and especially when it coincides with political change.
I kept thinking back to my own generational moment. Every once in a while in life you do feel the ground shift beneath your feet and know something irrevocable and final has happened. Way back in September, 1989, I was walking through Cape Town in a vast crowd of protesters, a rally to end apartheid. It was a bright spring morning in the southern hemisphere and yet again we had gathered to protest more detentions without trial and governmental racism. Further down the street there were police ahead of us firing water cannons. The water had been dyed purple so those in the march could be identified and arrested afterwards. All public gatherings of a political nature were illegal in those days.
As we walked, people began to stream out of offices, out from restaurants and shopping malls to join us. Despite the armed police, water cannons and military vehicles, the crowd was laughing and we just kept walking as more and more people came out to join us, students, businessmen, shoppers, street cleaners, even some of the police lining the streets. The crowd kept growing: mothers were pushing small children in prams, schoolchildren were joining us, cyclists and taxi drivers.
We knew that political talks were taking place behind the scenes and that the dismantling of apartheid had begun. But we hadn’t felt anything like this ever before, a crowd swelling, unstoppable, a movement that was unafraid. I remember looking around at the faces in the crowd and knowing in my heart and guts that it was finally over, that we were not afraid any longer, that the grey-faced white men in parliament had lost and there would be no going back.
That knowing was scary because we had no idea what the future would hold and change is never easy. Unlearning racism is the work of a lifetime and building trust between former enemies is hard, hard work. But my generation had come into power, the scruffy outspoken students and activists, the poor, the marginal, ridiculed so often as immature and unrealistic or labelled godless, immoral Communists. We had named apartheid as evil and the truth had become apparent. It wasn’t as if all the truth was on our side, it wasn’t as if human rights is a simple matter. But the ground under our feet had shifted and for better or worse we were moving into unknown territory. My generation had come of age.
On September 2 1989 anti-apartheid protesters marching on Parliament were stopped by police near this spot. They mounted an impromptu sit-in and police retaliated with tear gas, batons and a new weapon: a water cannon laced with purple dye to stain demonstrators and make them easier to identify and detain. As protesters scattered, one climbed onto the armoured vehicle with the cannon and turned the purple jet on police. Purple dye stained most of the surrounding buildings, including the National Party headquarters and the white-washed walls of the historic Old Townhouse. The next day graffiti all over the city proclaimed “The Purple Shall Govern”. This was one of the last protest marches outlawed by the apartheid government. Eleven days later, 30 000 people marched through the city without police intervention.