This coming week leading up to Youth Day, all of South Africa will remember 16 June 1976: The day that thousands of young school students in Soweto took to the streets in protest of a new law established by the apartheid government making Afrikaans and English the compulsory languages for instruction in schools. They were met with a brutal crackdown by the police who opened fire on the crowd. These shootings provoked unrest and more protests throughout South Africa, leading to hundreds of young people killed and over 2000 injured.
From those tragic events, South Africa has turned this remembrance into a day to honour the courage and sacrifice of the Soweto uprising youths, who played a pivotal role in the battle against apartheid, and to support today’s youth across the country. Youth Day has become an opportunity to address the concerns facing today’s young people in South Africa and to encourage them to continue to play significant roles in the country’s future. Strong conviction and passion give young people the courage to stand up against injustices and to speak up on behalf of those who otherwise would not do it for themselves.
We can find an incredible biblical example of this narrative in the book of Daniel. Daniel and his three friends Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego were taken to Babylon after the destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem and were forced into the service of King Nebuchadnezzar. They met with many cultural challenges very different from their lives as Jews in Israel, but they tried to be good stewards to the king and stay out of trouble. One day the king made a decree that they just could not live with. Why? Because the decree was a direct affront to their culture and belief system, making it morally wrong to go along with. Together, the three friends decided to quietly protest by not obeying the order knowing full well that it could lead to a death sentence. These boys had a sense of justice with the conviction to follow through with their stance regardless of the consequences.
“Furious with rage, Nebuchadnezzar summoned Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. So these men were brought before the king, and Nebuchadnezzar said to them, “Is it true, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, that you do not serve my gods or worship the image of gold I have set up? Now when you hear the sound of the horn, flute, zither, lyre, harp, pipe and all kinds of music, if you are ready to fall down and worship the image I made, very good. But if you do not worship it, you will be thrown immediately into a blazing furnace. Then what god will be able to rescue you from my hand?” Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego replied to him, “King Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and he will deliver us from Your Majesty’s hand. But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.” Daniel 3:13-18
These young men knew full well that the consequences of their protest might end in death. They also knew that God could save them, but even so, they weren’t sure if He would. Their cause was righteous, but the outcome of their actions was uncertain. They didn’t care. They believed that their stance was for a greater good and on behalf of other Jews who would not, or could not, stand up for their convictions before the king.
King Nebuchadnezzar was outraged! He ordered that the furnace be turned up seven times hotter than usual. He had his soldiers bind the boys with ropes and throw them into the blazing furnace clothing and all. Wow! The parallel of the rage and anger displayed in the biblical narrative and the Soweto narrative of those trying to uphold an unjust governmental decree is shocking. The power of kings and governments has always been strong and so often unreasonable against their own people. Thank God for the youth who had such courage under fire!
In the biblical narrative God saved the three young men from harm. They miraculously did not have a burn on their bodies; not even the smell of smoke. “Then Nebuchadnezzar said, “Praise be to the God of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, who has sent his angel and rescued his servants! They trusted in him and defied the king’s command and were willing to give up their lives rather than serve or worship any god except their own God.” Daniel 3:28
It was the courage and bravery of those young men that caused God to miraculously save them; leading to the king’s change of heart and mind. It was that same courage and bravery that led the youth of Soweto to take to the streets to protest an unjust law. Unfortunately, those kids were faced with a barrage of gunfire that sent them to their deaths. For whatever reason we might never know or understand, God chose not to spare the lives of hundreds of those young people. But because of the fallout of that brutal act of murder, the government was judged and challenged and eventually forced to make changes in their laws.
The process of these changes is sometimes confounding. In Nebuchadnezzar’s case, his immediate new decree stated “that the people of any nation or language who say anything against the God of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego be cut into pieces and their houses be turned into piles of rubble, for no other god can save in this way.” Daniel 3:29.
To say the least, Nebuchadnezzar had a long way to go in understanding what is good, just and merciful for the people. For South Africans, the changes would also take time. The government would come under judgment and scrutiny for another 13 years after that tragic day before the fall of apartheid. There is still a long way to go in forming governments that are good, just and merciful for people. We look to our youth to stand up for and bring about changes for future generations. Thank God for our young people and the challenges they face in their quest for life and all the great liberties that should come with it.
To the youth of South Africa, “Le Chaim!” “To Life!”