Remembering armchair activism from the 1980s

Remembering armchair activism from the 1980s

When I went to university in 1979, there was plenty of noise. British students were boisterous.

We shouted and boycotted Barclays because it was the biggest high street bank in South Africa. We listened when the Anti-Apartheid Movement campaigned against Barclays because it helped finance the Cabora Bassa dam project in Mozambique.

Then, after James Callaghan’s minority Labour government lost a no-confidence motion by one vote forcing a general election that elected Margaret Thatcher, we had some local politics to get us lefties agitated. We crowed when the new conservative government introduced means-tested student loans. A few of my buddies estranged from wealthy families suddenly had to fund their education.

I remember that the first black-led government of Rhodesia in 90 years came to power after the power-sharing deal of Ian Smith in the soon to be independent Zimbabwe. I didn’t know that I would live in that beautiful country a few years later.

Alloporus at the University of Zimbabwe, 1987

The handsome young fellow at the start of his academic career, Zimbabwe, 1987

1979 saw the One-child policy introduced in China with significant political and population consequences.

Meanwhile, in the United States, McDonald’s introduced the Happy Meal.

By 1979, protests to end the Vietnam war were over. But their residue left a slightly cantankerous youth still able to muster an occupation of the university administration building. I can’t remember why.

What I do remember was that protest was inherently political. 

It meant something to throw challenges and abuse at the politicians because these were the people who made decisions. Whether that was Margaret or PW Botha, the last prime minister of South Africa before the State President was given executive powers under the new post-apartheid constitution, politicians were the target.

What I didn’t feel was any danger. 

My generation railed for others because we had it lucky. The world was our oyster, and we were enjoying a fabulous education heavily subsidised by the state.

Not so much now.

It is much harder everywhere, with more obscure prospects and a clear risk of system collapse. Even the fundamentals of the social contract are crumbling.

School strike for climate placcard

Photo by Callum Shaw on Unsplash

Activism skipped a few generations before it landed in schools. 

Today, the teenagers have taken up the chants and populated the demonstrations because they are worried. And I don’t blame them.

They point to the risk of environmental collapse and ask for urgent action.

Only the groundswell of justice that pushed my generation onto the moral high ground is, at best, a trickle of support. The political elite has insulated themselves from the noise in the fantasy land of their parliaments and used the media to make blunders like Brexit into great victories.

They are all deaf, dumb, blind and crap at pinball.

Even when the best of the schoolkid activists addresses them, all they can say is “go back to school”.

“Many of you appear concerned that we are wasting valuable lesson time, but I assure you we will go back to school the moment you start listening to science and give us a future.”

Greta Thunberg, Houses of Parliament, UK, April 2019.

Guardian columnist and writer Zoe Williams sums it up.

And then, in the matter-of-fact simplicity of youth.

We are sick of conference upon conference as if that alone is the solution.

Ella Simons, 15-year-old high school student from Melbourne, Member of the School Strike for Climate movement.

Each generation lives with noise. 

In hindsight, my late baby boomer peers had few moral dilemmas to chant about; the reality was far away in another land. We were unhappy with one in ten and danced with Rankin Roger as he implored Margaret to stand down, but these issues were never existential.

Today’s generation has its very future in the frame.