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Children of Activists Place Spotlight
On Human Face of Rights Struggle
February 14, 2000

Nkosinathi Biko believes his childhood ended when he was but six years old.

"When my father closed his eyes for the last time, my childhood evaporated," Biko told participants at the conference, "Building Upon Legacies: Children of Human Rights Struggles," held Feb. 3 in the Lewis B. Rome Commons in South Campus. More than 500 people attended all or part of the conference, which was sponsored by the Comparative Human Rights Project of the University of Connecticut-African National Congress Partnership.

"I remember two things about the day my father died," said Biko, the son of student activist Steve Biko, killed in detention by South African security forces during the apartheid era: "The extraordinarily dark clouds that covered the sky and the sight of my mother in tears."

Biko, whose father founded the Black Consciousness movement and is perhaps second only to Nelson Mandela in the collective memory of black South Africans, pointed out the personal aspect of the sacrifice his father and other activists made. "We remember them as icons, but they were ordinary human beings," he said. "They were people whose lives had meaning beyond just the political. ... Steve Biko was sacrificed for the good of many, but on my birthday, the day of my circumcision, my graduation day, that was just not good enough."

Biko made his remarks during the first of two plenary sessions held at the conference. The first session, which focused on the anti-apartheid movement, also included Meredith Carlson-Daly, daughter of Joel Carlson, leading defense attorney for Winnie Mandela and other black South Africans during the apartheid era; Gillian Slovo, daughter of Ruth First, slain intellectual and anti-apartheid activist, and Joe Slovo, head of the African National Congress' military wing and later Minister of Housing in Nelson Mandela's government; Nontombi Naomi Tutu, daughter of Nobel Peace-Prize winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu; and Somadoda Fikeni, an anti-apartheid activist who was detained six times during the apartheid era.

Each speaker in the first plenary session shared heart-wrenching recollections of the impact of their parents' fight against the South African system of racial degradation and oppression. Slovo and Carlson-Daly recalled how apartheid disrupted their family lives, forcing them to flee their homeland. Slovo's mother, Ruth First, was eventually killed by a letter bomb sent by South African security forces.

Carlson-Daly, whose father helped expose South Africa's forced labor system, remembered threatening phone calls, men outside the house at night cursing her father, and a fire bomb placed at his office.

Slovo said her parents were viewed with distaste by the white community for choosing to align themselves with the black majority in South Africa.

She said that while other white children were deciding who to swim with at the weekend, she and her sisters were more worried about whether their parents would spend the day with them rather than in jail.

Although they acknowledged their parents' activism caused them pain as children, neither Slovo nor Carlson-Daly had regrets. "I believe children whose parents sacrificed to achieve political and social change have learned valuable lessons from our sacrifice," Carlson-Daly said. Slovo, who has written a family memoir as a way of coming to terms with her childhood, agreed: "The world would be a poorer place," she said, quoting her father, "if it was peopled by children whose parents risked nothing in the cause of social justice for fear of their own personal loss."

Tutu remembered seeing a loved one diminished by the disrespect inherent in such a culture. Raised to respect her elders, Tutu said she had not known her grandmother's first name until she heard it spoken by the children of the white family for whom her grandmother worked.

"How we talk to one another speaks to whether we believe in human rights or not," she said.

Tutu said the anti-apartheid struggle was part of a universal struggle for human dignity and she drew parallels with the civil rights movement. "Our oppression was your oppression," she told the audience. "Your freedom was our freedom and there wasn't any way to disentangle them."

Fikeni, who was detained six times for political activism - the first time when he was 14 years old - pointed to the scale of the destruction wrought by apartheid. The South African apartheid regime, he said, caused the displacement of millions of people in southern Africa, and destabilized countries such as Angola and Mozambique. Apartheid, he said, "was a phase in our history that was not by accident. It was by design. It requires each one of us to come to terms with the best and worst of our fellow citizens."

The second plenary session, which focused on the U.S. civil rights movement, featured the activist-academic Paul Robeson Jr., son of the famed actor-lawyer-activist, and Paula Young Shelton, daughter of civil rights leader and former U.N. ambassador Andrew Young.

During the second session, Robeson chastised those who would turn individuals such as former South African president Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King or Malcolm X into "icons" of a "sanitized, feel-good history." "This is a society obsessed with icons," Robeson said. "Icons serve to confuse and demobilize the consciousness of the oppressed."

Young-Shelton told the audience, "There is no more important issue on the world's agenda than children." She laid out a series of proposals to address the problems of poverty among children, particularly by strengthening public education. "The product of your neighborhood schools will affect you one way or another," she said.

Amii Omara-Otunnu, director of the Comparative Human Rights Project and an associate professor of history, said the conference was intended to pay tribute to those who devoted their lives to the struggle for human rights. "We hope to inspire people to think seriously about human rights, not as an abstract subject but as something that affects the lives of real human beings," he said.

Omara-Otunnu said he was pleased the conference was attended by so many students from the University and from high schools and middle schools across the state. "They're the leaders of tomorrow," he said.

Richard Brown, a professor of history at UConn, described the conference as a "once-in-a-lifetime" experience. "The panelists each gave very articulate, insightful, thoughtful, and in some cases, moving remarks on their recollections and family experiences," he said. "I'm proud of the University of Connecticut for holding this extraordinary event."

Gary Frank