By DeWayne Wickham
First lady Michelle Obama is going to South Africa and Botswana later this month to tout the value of education and promote her worldwide campaign to encourage young people to assume leadership roles in their countries.
This is the kind of good work that Obama, who overcame the perils of poverty to earn degrees from Princeton University and Harvard Law School , is well suited to do. She knows better than a lot of diplomats what it takes to scale the hurdles too many young people face.
This trip is an opportunity for Obama “to teach her daughters about how we survive or fail based upon our global connectedness,” Charles Ogletree, a Harvard Law School professor who taught both President Obama and his wife, told me.
It’s an opportunity to do that and much more.
A few days before Obama is scheduled to arrive in South Africa, the most important stop of her six-day trip, that country will observe the 35th anniversary of what was arguably the most important moment in the struggle to end apartheid — the brutal system of white-minority rule that lasted more than four decades.
What happened in South Africa on June 16, 1976, is now acknowledged there with a national holiday that is innocently called “Youth Day.” It was then that a spasm of violence by government forces erupted, taking the lives of more than 700 black South Africans, most of them schoolchildren.
These killings in Soweto, a black township on the outskirts of Johannesburg, were sparked by the government’s decision to force black children to learn Afrikaans, the language of the Dutch descendants who were oppressing the country’s black majority.
The students regarded English as a passport to higher education and the world beyond South Africa, investigative reporter Les Payne wrote in an 11-part series that Newsday published in 1977. They learned the value of education through the depravation they were forced to endure; outdated textbooks, unqualified teachers and inferior school facilities taught them that lesson.
And it was out of a determination to get a better education that many young black schoolchildren joined a protest whose violent suppression fueled an anti-apartheid movement that eventually sapped the life out of South Africa’s pigmentocracy.
The story of the willingness of these students to risk their lives for a better education — and their courage to challenge the armed goons South Africa’s apartheid-era government sent into Soweto to silence them — is a history lesson every generation of American children ought to be taught. It’s also something Obama should acknowledge during her visit.
Sadly, Payne’s groundbreaking stories on the Soweto student uprising didn’t get the recognition they deserve. In 1976, he spent nearly three months in that township. He eluded his government handlers to interview student leaders who were in hiding — and went from funeral homes, to churches, to gatherings of grieving families to document a level of carnage much higher than what the South African government claimed.
For his efforts, Payne was the first choice of the judges to receive the 1978 Pulitzer Prize for foreign reporting. But in a controversial act, that decision was overridden by the Pulitzer’s ruling body and given to the judges’ fourth choice.
Obama would do much to inspire young people here and abroad by acknowledging the heroic sacrifices South African students made in 1976 — and the great effort Payne made to tell the world their story.