the greatest youth movement in history: mandela’s disciples

The beginning of arguable the greatest youth activism movement all began with twelve. Twelve young boys inspired by the ideas of Nelson Mandela left on a journey that would change their lives and so many others for years to come. This is the story of how Nelson Mandela’s movement began. Social movements often have symbolic leaders, but they are really comprised of thousands, thousands and thousands of local leaders and supporters. The first of these unsung heroes came from Bloemfontein. Most people have never heard of Bloemfontein, but they have heard of Soweto or Johannesburg or Cape Town. Bloemfontein is where the twelve came from.

After recently seeing the documentary ‘The Twelve Disciples of Mandela’ I began to learn about the real history of the anti-apartheid movement and its deep roots in youth activism. “Less well known is the experience of a generation of young men who left their country clandestinely to build the African National Congress (ANC) and spread its liberation message in places as far-flung as Dar Es Salaam, Belgrade, London, Havana and New York. Left to their own devices, hunted by the Afrikaner regime (and considered terrorists by the U.S. government), lacking legal status and often socially isolated, these foot soldiers of the anti-apartheid cause forged ahead as one of the century’s great freedom struggles stretched into 30 years of brutal conflict.” – this is the brief synopsis that is given about the compelling documentary. The film outlines the struggles for independence all across the continent and tells of how this group of twelve students blazed the trail for so many freedom fighters starting in the 1960s.

Beginning in 1952 the anti-apartheid campaign was defined as the ANC staged its first act of civil disobedience against the pass laws. In 1958 the Bantu education policy was imposed, where basically black South Africans were taught nothing of value, except how to serve their white counterparts. This is the where the journey of the twelve began. The burned their pass cards in response to the Bantu education law and set out on what would be a quest that would alter their lives forever. With the passage of the Bantu education, riots sprung up in Sharpville in 1960, where many innocents were killed and the concept of human dignity was questioned. As quoted from one interview, “[…] whether educated or uneducated, all realized they had to rise up against the system.”

The twelve began their journey from a jump point in Botswana, where many left and were deported back to start again. They had a desire to reach the newly independent Ghana. My class, ‘Africa and the World’ watched a documentary today on the rise of nationalism in Africa and how Ghana represented a great hope for the rest of the continent. Ghana’s independence raised hope everywhere especially in South Africa. The twelve sought education to build the movement and some made it to Tanganyika (before Tanzania was formed) through Sudan, where they met Mandela. They began studies in the capitol, Dar es Salaam. Others traveled to Cuba to be trained militarily and were mobilized for the October crisis. Around 1967, some members of the twelve made it to the US to continue studies in journalism, where the ANC was considered a communist, terrorist group. At Lincoln and Temple University members of the twelve grew in knowledge to fight apartheid.

1976 – the Soweto student marches and massacre, “We still have a long way to go.” This one event led to the uprising of young people all over the world in a hope for peaceful change. David Basilson stated in his documentary on the rise of nationalism that, “Freedom will bring peace.”

The ‘Twelve Disciples of Mandela’ documentary was extremely compelling and educational with its history aspects. The story of this youth movement is told by a son of one of the twelve. Thomas Allen Harris tells the story of his stepfather, Benjamin Pule Leinaeng, who met his mother in the Bronx while studying journalism. He always remembered his stepfather in his depression and drinking and often rebelled against his authority, but nothing prepared Harris for his father’s funeral in South Africa, which was the inspiration for the documentary. “In Bloemfontein, however, Harris discovered an image of Lee dramatically different from that of the moody, foreign stepfather. He was especially affected by the recollections of two of Lee’s associates, Moses Medupe (Dups) and Mochubela Seekoe (Wesi), who were among the group of 12 students, including Lee, who left Bloemfontein in 1960. Dups and Wesi spoke fondly of Lee as a young man and described what life was like for blacks in Bloemfontein under apartheid and during the long years of exile. Family and friends who gathered at the funeral to eulogize Lee spoke of a brave and cheerful youth setting out to battle apartheid, a comrade who never wavered in that struggle even as it wore him down. They all told stories of the ANC’s beginnings in Bloemfontein, in the heart of Afrikaner country, and of the terrible repressions that drove the organization underground and to establishing centers of resistance outside the country.”

This documentary runs through all these stories and more. Interviews with original members of the twelve and those who supported them inspires, recreations of actions taken by the twelve captivate, and the history of a young generation inspired to fight oppression motivates the mind to take action even today. Youth trapped in an oppressive world were able to battle the odds and pave the way for so many others to make a difference for South Africa, what is holding us back now?

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