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Conversations across the generations: what did you talk about on 16 June?

| August 18, 2014 | 0 Comments

By Murray Thomas

On 16 June 2014, St Peter’s College enjoyed a really excellent rendition of One Direction’s song Tonight, We A re Young,1 played as an introit2 piece by the school band as the teachers proceeded into the chapel for our special Youth Day Eucharist.

Later in the day, I took time to click on a YouTube video of the original song to understand the message of the lyrics.3 The contrast between past and present was dramatic. On the one hand, we were remembering the watershed 1976 youth protests in South Africa – significant events that scarred a nation and garnered international support for a more open, democratic and dignified future.4 And on the other hand, we were listening to a modern vocal piece that included risky references to hedonistic party-oriented priorities and, some might argue, a narrow generational obsession with selfish living.

The big question

One might ask the questions: to what extent can young South Africans today relate to the challenges overcome by an earlier generation? How connected are they to bigger issues of social justice? Do they choose to see today’s challenges, and name them, or are they blithely hoping that a cossetted schooling with a decent matric result at the end and some broader sporting or cultural exposure in between, will prepare them well for the unpredictable joys and challenges of tomorrow’s world? Are they content to retreat from the big questions in life or are they prepared to follow a braver path? What big issues are our youth – your children and students – talking about? What could they be talking about?

Pondering the profound

I believe teenagers are capable of mature and sophisticated reflection, particularly given the ‘stretch thinking’ we require of them in most independent school environments. While some contexts might accept adolescent self-interest as a norm, I’m inclined to nudge towards a larger youth reason for living. Why? Because I believe we are programmed to see hypocrisy and fight for noble and self-less ideals. The Arab Spring of 2011, for example, was started by highly educated – and frustrated – young Egyptians, who mobilised in Tahrir Square against a smug political elite. Their pain, hopes and actions sparked a series of protests that rumble on today – tragically so.5

Our 1976 struggle icons in South Africa have inspired more than one generation at home, and have also fuelled movements for change beyond the borders of our country.6 Perhaps this is the mark of lives well lived. If an ideal resonates beyond a defined cultural or geographic boundary, if it speaks to multitudes elsewhere, perhaps we are touching on the profound.

The musings of a headmaster should not be dangerous, I’m told. So, although I’m intrigued to know what dinner table conversations you may have had with your children about the significance of our 16 June public holiday, I am not advocating revolution. I am, however, interested in how young people think, and am doubly interested in the potential for conversations across the generations.

The power of political choice at St Peter’s

One practical expression of this nudge towards adult thinking happened in the run-up to our recent national elections.7 As a young democracy, many of us treasure the power of our vote. In the weeks preceding 7 May when South Africans went to the polls, a generation of born-free8 St Peter’s Primary School pupils participated in their own mock elections, posting votes in homemade ballot boxes.

The Boys’ Junior Primary phase chose to focus on sun safety. They evaluated the school’s sun hats and staged a democratic election to vote for the sun hat of their choice.

As St Peter’s is deeply committed to the Thinking Schools South Africa movement,9 this exercise provided an ideal practical opportunity for everyone involved to reflect on social action. Our boys and girls used De Bono’s Six Thinking Hats10 to practise flexible thinking, moving from ‘White Hat’ factual thinking, such as ‘You have to be over 18 to vote’, to ‘Yellow Hat’ positives, such as ‘The political process must be fair and valid’. Later on, our parents were no doubt drawn into some useful child-centred discussions about the power of political choices and civic actions.

Encouraging drivers of change

Conversations shape one’s world view, challenge our own assumptions and give us permission to think differently. Ultimately, these insights lead to action. If Africa’s tomorrow is going to give substance to the brave voices of 1976, we will need to sustain this country’s commitment to grow a healthy civic conscience. Schools can and should provide thoughtful opportunities to understand the political process and encourage young drivers of change, as each new generation recommits itself to lead South Africa.


1. One Direction is a British-Irish ‘boy band’. See, for example:

2. The Introit (from Latin: introitus, ‘entrance’) is part of the opening of the liturgical celebration of the Eucharist for many Christian denominations. (Source:

3. See, for example:

4. See, for example: remembering-the-june-16-1976-soweto-youth-uprising/ and class.

5. See, for example: Manfreda, P. (n.d.) “Definition of the Arab Spring Middle East uprisings in 2011”. Available at: humanrightsdemocracy/a/Definition-Of-The-Arab-Spring.htm.

6. See, for example: remembering-the-june-16-1976-soweto-youth-uprising/ and class.

7. See, for example:

8. ‘Born-frees’ are South Africans born after apartheid ended. See, for example: Smith, D. (2014) “South Africans vote in first election for ‘born free’ generation”. Available at: may/07/south-africans-first-election-born-free-born-after-apartheid.

9. See: 10. Ibid.


Category: Spring 2014

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