The loss of George Floyd’s life at the hands of Minneapolis law enforcement on May 25, 2020, triggered nationwide outrage and distress. A series of protests against police brutality quickly ensued, led by the Black Lives Matter (BLM) organization, locally and internationally.
My children and I participated in one of these marches in our neighborhood on the normally quaint and quiet Seattle-area suburb of Mercer Island on a rainy June day. The march began with a three-and-a-half-mile walk from the local middle school to a downtown park and concluded with speakers describing their experiences with racism. My kids and I participated in the march because we wanted our activism to help usher in systemic change in the criminal justice system — change built on a foundation that recognizes that George Floyd’s life mattered, as did the lives of all Black people who have perished due to police brutality.
Since the march, I’ve thought much about the relationship between Black life under apartheid South Africa and Black life in the United States today. I’ve wondered if the lessons I learned from my family while growing up in Soweto, South Africa, under apartheid might be useful to us today. Here are some ideas to consider.
1. My Black Life Matters
I was born and raised in a time and place when Black lives were not accorded any value. Despite this, my mom, Esther Langa, repeatedly said to me: “Lindi, you have a sign on your back, and it tells people what you want them to think of you. If your sign reads ‘I’m worth a million dollars’, that’s how people will treat you.”
Thanks to my mom’s influence, and that of teachers, pastors, and others, I grew up believing I was valuable as a Black person. I was proud of my Blackness. When encountering racism while growing up, and later, as an adult, when folks tried to make me feel as if I didn’t — and couldn’t possibly — measure up in the professional environment, I never for a single moment bought in to their narrative. Their bigotry and derision couldn’t break me. I knew, deep in the core of my being, that I was an intelligent, compassionate, and valuable person.
Black lives have always mattered, in every time and in every place; for we, just as all others, are the children of God. Certain societies, groups, and individuals have worked hard to deny this, convincing themselves that certain others are “less than”: think of slavery (and later Jim Crow laws and segregation) in the US, South African apartheid, the Holocaust, the Hutu slaughter of the Tutsi, India’s caste system, oppression of Australian aborigines, and many other similar situations. Never easy, the struggle to sweep away this denial cannot succeed unless we believe that our lives matter and that we are inherently good people striving to make a better world for ourselves and for others.
When that is what other Black people read on the “sign on your back,” they will be more likely to believe that they, too, are valuable. And when that is what everyone else in society reads, they will also be more likely to believe that we are valuable and that they can work with us for the betterment of all.
2. My Choices Matter, and Crucially So
Growing up, I was taught to understand that the choices I made mattered. This was counterintuitive because so much of our lives were constrained by restrictive racist laws, including those that prevented us from moving freely about the country and living where we pleased.
Despite this, my mom made it clear that I had freedom to do whatever I wanted, including taking up smoking, drinking, drugs, and premarital (protected) sex. But she added a crucial caveat, saying: “Lindi, you have the freedom to do anything you want — but you are not free from the consequences of your choices.”
That message registered so strongly that I deliberately avoided becoming involved in any of that stuff. Because of my mother’s (and my grandmother’s) influence, I learned to keep my head down and study, to avoid getting pregnant at a young age, and to cultivate supportive friendships. I learned to make choices that aligned with my view of myself: “I am valuable, and I must make choices that reinforce my value.” So strongly did I believe in my intrinsic value that when thugs in my ‘hood tried to “jackroll” (abduct, rape, and possibly kill) me, I refused to give in to their demands.
I have made many choices over the course of my life, and I have learned that each choice feeds back into my view of myself. My good choices have strengthened my belief that I’m a valuable human being, while my not-so-good ones have tempted me to think otherwise. I have also learned that my choices feed into the message written on that sign on my back. My choices, large and small, tell other people how to treat me.
During our BLM march in June, my kids, neighbors, and I made a collective choice to march proudly, with a strong presence, but peacefully. At one point, we knelt for eight minutes and forty-six seconds, silently contemplating the awful final minutes of George Floyd’s life.
We understood that if we wanted our message to resonate with others and to be effective, we had to demonstrate moral strength, not just outrage. We understood that the choices we were making that day mattered, and we refused to engage in any acts that would detract from our message.
With our actions, we said loudly and clearly that Black lives matter and that everyone is invited to join us in our struggle for justice.
3. Assume Non-Black Folks Are on Our Side until Shown Otherwise
Despite the fact that I was Black, which placed me on the lowest rung of the apartheid ladder, and despite that fact that I was female in a very patriarchal society, a number of White people have supported me and some other Black people at various points of our journey. It would have been very easy for them not to do so, and, in fact, some reached out at a time when doing so could easily have brought the wrath of apartheid crashing down on their heads. Indeed, many White people were punished by the government for daring to believe that Black people’s lives mattered.
I have never forgotten the lesson I learned from seeing this: It’s easy to view all of “them” as the enemy when, in fact, some (if not many) of them are ready to be an ally.
My family taught me this quite explicitly, in word and deed. By his example, my grandfather urged me to embrace ubuntu (motho ke motho ka batho — I am who I am because of others), the African tradition which teaches that life is about community and interdependence. Ubuntu encourages us to recognize the humanity of each person rather than judge on the basis of group actions. My maternal great-grandmother, also an ubuntu adherent, helped me understand that izandla ziyahlambana (the hands wash each other) — that is, community members help each other and shoulder each other’s burdens. In the face of apartheid, I was taught to meet bitterness with ubuntu and hopelessness with faith.
During our Mercer Island BLM march, we assumed that every non-Black person who joined us was well-intended. It’s possible some were actually racist or biased in some way, perhaps engaging out of irony or sarcasm, or engaging in virtue signaling. Yet, we operated on the premise that everyone who stood or marched with us did so in good faith, being eager to see change as my kids and I were.
It’s true that life is not a massive, ongoing BLM march in which people are, by their very presence, signaling that they are “allies.” In day-to-day life, we cannot instantly and automatically determine if people are allies by their mere presence or some other explicit signal. But even though we lack these obvious signifiers in daily life, I believe the principles of motho ke motho ka batho and izandla ziyahlambana are necessary and valuable.
I’m certainly not suggesting that we are living in a post-racial society. In fact, some would argue that America is still indifferent to minority concerns, given how many Americans voted for the Trump/Pence ticket in the recent presidential election.
Although I understand that reasoning, I still believe that most people seek to be good. We are, however, influenced by our leadership, to greater or lesser degrees. We respond to their cues, and when top leaders vilify certain groups and individuals, we may unconsciously allow their anger to trigger us and their sense of grievance or desire to suppress others to become ours, at least in part. But when, instead, leadership invites us to find the best in ourselves and in others, we respond with equal force.
President John Kennedy demonstrated the power of inspirational leadership in his famous “ask not” speech. Nelson Mandela did the same in South Africa, despite having been subjected to the cruel brutalities of apartheid. Upon ascending to that nation’s highest office, he worked to help people become better than who they imagined they were. He did not believe that people who had behaved in negative ways were irredeemably racist. Instead, he felt that the human mind and soul are malleable and that people, given proper guidance, can become much more than they are.
In addition to believing that most people seek to be good, I take comfort in the fact that Joe Biden won both the popular and the electoral vote. This shows that the American people are repudiating Trump’s nod to racism and white supremacy and continuing the steady (if slow) march toward liberty and justice for all. During the campaign, Joe Biden pointed out that “The battle for the soul of this nation has been a constant push and pull for over 240 years”. The journey has never been easy, and we still have much to accomplish, but the cumulative progress over the past many decades is significant.
I believe that America will be that proverbial “City on a Hill” once we have leadership that appeals to the best in us. In the meantime, while continuing to work on breaking down the remaining vestiges of discrimination and call out manifestations of racism, we should strive to build on the tens of millions of Americans who repudiate racism to move into the post-racial society. And, as much as possible — unless shown otherwise — we should believe the best of everyone. We should seek to work with good people of all stripes, for, as experience has taught me over and over, many people who look nothing like me are as appalled by discrimination and injustice as I am.
4. Victory Is in Our Hand — If!
I can never remember a time when I did not hear of “the struggle,” and as a student at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, I found myself caught up in the internal struggles within the movement. As president of the Commerce Students Council, I ran afoul of SASCO (South African Students Congress), which had a radically different approach to bringing about racial transformation and inclusion than I did. In essence, I wanted to pursue a strategy that would yield more sustainable results in the long term, while they preferred, in essence, to pursue a short-term agenda tinged with bitterness and a desire for revenge.
There is certainly a time for anger, and in such times, thoughts of revenge naturally spring up as part of the human response to injustice. But just as there is a time for anger, there is a time for carefully focused plans of action.
My experience with SASCO was unsettling, not just because the young men in the group physically surrounded me on campus in a very threatening manner that might have gotten worse had witnesses not been present, and not just because they continued to call me names for a long time afterward. It was unsettling also because we missed the moment to shift from anger to action, from generalities to specifics. We squandered the opportunity not only to work together as Black people but also to win the support of others in developing and pushing through precise policies that would benefit our cause.
Applying the Lessons
Among the lessons learned under apartheid, there are those which I believe can be applied to the current situation in the United States. Even though the circumstances are different — South Africa of the 1980s and 1990s is not a mirror-image of the United States today —these lessons are about understanding and approaches (not specific tactics) and can be applied in many situations.
1. Appreciate Our Agency to Create Change
Much of the current discourse in America centers around the Black community’s woes. For example, we earn less money and have less wealth than other groups; we’re underrepresented in boardrooms and in the back rooms where political deals are made; and we’re far less likely than other groups to own homes and far more likely to end up in prison.
These are all important issues, but so often they keep our eyes focused on what we cannot do, rather than on what we can and have already done, numerous times. I appreciate the fact that my ancestors and I were not in the United States during past times of slavery, discrimination, and struggle. But as a people, we Blacks have notched victories. We survived slavery, endured Jim Crow, fought for our civil rights, and made it possible for people like me to thrive today.
We must continually remind ourselves of our victories. Remind ourselves that, in decades past, we built communities such as the Greenwood neighborhood of Tulsa, Oklahoma — the famed “Black Wall Street” that thrived until put to the flame in racist riots in 1921. Besides Greenwood, we can proudly point to Boley, Oklahoma; Jackson Ward of Richmond, Virginia; the Hayti Community of Durham; and others. Despite the harsh glare of Jim Crow, despite structural barriers that would astonish us today, despite laws that were unashamedly racist, demeaning, and demoralizing, we succeeded. Yes, our successes were often snatched out of our hands, but that shouldn’t deter us from continuing to put our collective hands to the plow.
Greenwood and other areas blossomed because their founders focused on building — building business and community and new possibilities. More recently, Stacey Abrams turned her loss in Georgia’s 2018 gubernatorial election — one she believed was distorted by voter suppression — into a crusade to “register and empower voters”. Today, she is credited with having brought enough new voters to the table to flip the state from red to blue and help provide Joe Biden with a comfortable margin of victory. She showed that it is possible to continue notching victories when success is what we focus on.
Just think how much we can do today when, despite ongoing problems, there are so many successful black politicians, businesspeople, physicians, artists, etc.
We succeeded when conditions were miserable. We can do even more today.
2. Develop a Defined Vision
“Doing more” requires that we know where we want to go and, equally important, where we do not wish to tread. It demands that we define the path most likely to get us to the goal without running down blind alleys, stepping into quicksand, or raising unnecessary opposition.
Rather than making unsustainable demands, such as requiring folks to raise their fists in support of BLM or demanding that White people hand their houses over to Black folks, or engaging in violence and destroying property, we need to develop a vision of the kind of system of education, criminal justice, healthcare, etc. that would best serve our interests. The Congressional Black Caucus and O’Shea Jackson (Ice Cube), among others, have come up with plans. The Biden/Harris team has also presented a plan encompassing racial equality, and with their accession to the White House, Black people have a unique opportunity to evaluate various new proposals and determine which plans best serve our interests.
3. Frame the Issues Correctly to Develop Sustainable Solutions
In order to determine which plans best serve our interests, we need to correctly frame the issues we’re facing. In the criminal justice arena, for instance, some have suggested that we need to do away with policing altogether. But the real issue isn’t the existence of police, it’s their excessive use of power.
I agree that the criminal justice system needs to be reformed (and have previously shared some proposals on this in an article entitled “Ubuntu Policing: From Brutality to Humanity”), from police to prosecutor to prison, but do we really want to abolish the police altogether? Would the nation truly be better off if we simply asked the crooks — of all races, ethnicities, and religions and of violent or non-violent inclination — to behave themselves?
Blasting away at a bacterium with a bazooka will cause tremendous collateral damage, yet probably won’t destroy the germ. A few drops of the right medicine, on the other hand, are much more likely to succeed.
Similarly, this is why we must ask ourselves what we truly want the justice system to do for the nation. Is our request feasible, given the resources, training, and other support given to the various parts of the criminal justice system? And most importantly, will it resolve the problem without creating a host of new ones?
James Clyburn, House Majority Whip and Representative from South Carolina, recently spoke of the need to focus on the doable. “We need to work on what makes headway,” he argued, “rather than what makes headlines”.
4. Bring All the Resources to Bear
People poured into the streets to protest following the death of George Floyd. This drove change in some cities. For example, the city of Seattle has banned the use of chokeholds of the kind that killed George Floyd (as have other cities).
At the national level, the Justice in Policing Act was passed in the House of Representatives but has been stuck in the Senate ever since. This is partially due to today’s polarized politics and the gridlocked government that often results; but we must ask ourselves an important question: Could we have done more on that front and can we do more, going forward? More to engage with the process within our community and by reaching out to other communities?
Even though the Biden/Harris team is poised to enter the White House, we can’t leave it to political parties or pundits — not even to sympathetic officials — to champion our interests. We can’t sit back and wait for something to happen. Solutions that require changing the system must come from the community, from each and every one of us, working together and agreeing to set aside differences regarding tactics and targets in order to harness and direct our power. We need to develop a national structure, perhaps similar to organizations like AIPAC, that’s big enough to reach everyone, to encourage all to engage at whatever level they are able, and to make it easy for everyone to engage with a few simple computer clicks.
In order to leverage our power, we need to bring all our resources to bear, not just the press coverage created by marching. We need to engage with society at large so folks join our agenda. We need to engage elected officials so they understand our agenda. And we need to continue encouraging people to vote for leaders who will push through our agenda because they understand our needs.
I believe we are living in a unique period of American history. Despite the incessant fighting between groups and the numerous horrifying examples of a system gone wrong (such as the tragic death of George Floyd), we have the opportunity to surge forward.
We, the Black community, have the opportunity to convert our justified outrage into focused plans of sustainable action — the opportunity to come together as one, while reaching out to all others who are willing to help. And if we reach out with open arms rather than with a snarl, we’ll find that many of “them” are just as outraged as we are, and they are willing — even eager — to be our allies.
I believe that America can be infused with ubuntu. I believe that people are eager to be, for we have come to see how much more we can accomplish when we meet bitterness with humanity and hopelessness with faith.
 Rubin, Jennifer. “Biden delivers the presidential speech we needed.” WashingtonPost.com, June 2, 2020. Accessible at https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2020/06/02/biden-delivers-presidential-speech-we-needed/. Viewed November 11, 2020.
 Karimi, Faith. “For Stacey Abrams, revenge is a dish best served blue.” CNN.com, November 7, 2020. Accessible at https://www.cnn.com/2020/11/07/us/stacey-abrams-georgia-voter-suppression-trnd/index.html. Viewed November 11, 2020.
 Brown, Matthew. “Democratic Whip James Clyburn: ‘Defund the police’ cost Democrats seats, hurt Black Lives Matter movement.” USA Today, November 8, 2020. Accessible at https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2020/11/08/james-clyburn-defund-police-cost-democrats-seats-hurt-black-lives-matter/6216371002/. Viewed November 11, 2020.
Lawyer | Author | Freedom Activist
Lindi is a lawyer, author of Daughter of Apartheid, finance professional at Amazon’s Seattle headquarters, and freedom activist. She earned four degrees from Boston University and University of the Witwatersrand.
Lindi helps people who have gone through adversity reframe their identity and outlook so as to live more prosperous lives. She writes in her personal capacity. For more on Daughter of Apartheid, see: www.amazon.com/author/linditardif.