There are those events in the life of any nation which by the sheer magnitude of their occurrence, in their aftermath they leave behind a watershed for generations to come. Such is the June 16, 1976, Students Uprisings in the country’s historical, social and economic landscape.
Some 40 years later, tears from tear gas smoke; the sounds of bullets maiming and killing innocent students who dared challenge the obnoxious apartheid education system, Bantu education, still linger on vividly in our cheeks and minds as those who first experienced the brutality of the apartheid regime .
Pictures are still stark of young people and students of the day with dustbin lids and stones courageously surging on and on against the might of the most powerful military and police state on the continent.
In an attempt to demean the occasion, the racist regime screamed: “Work of a few agitators.”
To their amazement in a few days the dusty streets of Soweto, Gugulethu, KwaMashu and almost every township in the country were in flames. Black Power! Amandla! Down with Bantu Education! was a rallying clarion call resonating across the length and breadth of our land. It is estimated that no fewer than 600 people were killed and scores injured or detained during those stormy days.
To some of us who were part of those uprisings in our teens, they evoke mixed emotions. On one hand, memories of pain and anger that besieged our generation rekindle. The pain and anger is borne of the fact that for the first time we were to witness brutal killings and injuries of friends, relatives and school mates at that young age. The agony of seeing scores lying cold; others screaming in pain from bullet wounds is still fresh.
For the first time we witnessed massive police arrests of even 7-year-olds. Scores of us had to shatter our parents’ dreams and leave for exile to join the liberation movements such as Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) of the ANC; the Azanian People Liberation Army (APLA) of the PAC and later the Azanian National Liberation Army (Azanla) of the Black Consciousness movement (Azapo). We had to leave loved ones behind and head to lands hitherto unknown.
Many a young man was turned into an adult at an early age. The song sung by the youth multitudes of the time capture the moment: Sabashiy’abazal ekhaya’; Saphuma sangena kwamanye amazwe: Lapho kungazi khon’ ubaba nomama silándel’ ínkululeko (We left our parents back home; We went to foreign lands; Where our fathers and mothers did not know; all in pursuit of freedom.” A poet of the time captured the moment when he wrote: To the young heroes of the day; They who languished in jail; And rode the whirlwind abroad; They saw the sun go down uneasily; While fathers stood heads bowed; They stormed the June winter; And shamed life long lies; They hallowing out there; With clenched fists; To their circumcised being; For they are heroes coming back home.
The June 16 Soweto Uprisings bring excitement and joy of having been part of that defining moment. The excitement and joy of having been part of a moment that not only changed the course of the country’s history, but that of Africa and the world.
To appreciate the historic nature of the events of June 16, a glimpse into the historical context would suffice. As the liberation organisations had been banned in the 1960s and most of the leadership arrested with Oliver Tambo in exile and many hanged, the Struggle experienced a lull.
Slowly but surely there were attempts to resuscitate underground structures of banned organisations from the mid-1960s to the 1970s. Trade unions were being revitalised leading to the Durban Worker’s Strikes in the mid-1970s.
With the collapse of Portuguese colonialism in 1974 and the subsequent independence of Angola and Mozambique, the stage was set.
The Frelimo Rally of 1975 reignited the student movements in tertiary institutions such Engoye and Turloop. The SA Students Organisation was formed to lead such struggles at that level. It was however in the secondary schools that students galvanised massively leading to the formation and mushrooming of the South African Students Movement. After an attempt by the apartheid regime to impose Afrikaans as a medium of instruction, the battle lines were drawn.
Students from across Soweto organised a protest march headed for Orlando Stadium to outline their grievances, only to be met by a hail of bullets that killed among the first, Hector Pieterson.
South Africa was never the same again. Apartheid was rendered unworkable and South Africa ungovernable. Mass action, the armed Struggle, the rebuilding of underground structures and international condemnation of apartheid and solidarity for the Struggle mounted in a manner unprecedented. The writing was on the wall and capitulation by the apartheid regime was inevitable.
In 1990, political prisoners were released; political organisations were unbanned; exiles returned and negotiations began in earnest culminating in democracy on April 27, 1994. The death-defying spirit of the June 16 student generation working with workers, religious leadership, professionals and all progressive sectors had triumphed.
What then is the lesson?
The recent ugly and despicable acts of torching 24 schools in Vuwani; the violent protests in universities, the torching of libraries and other public institutions during service delivery protests has no place in our society.
June 16 heroes fought so that all children could have decent, equal education. Worth noting was that those who in 1976 attacked symbols of apartheid even in their anger never torched schools. They knew that schools were important moving into the future and that education was a right of the citizenry.
They understood that education was to be the cornerstone for sustainable development. As the country commemorates June as Child Protection Week and Youth Month, the time has come to call upon those that took part in the June 16 Uprisings to share their experiences with the rest of society, especially the youth. The youth constitute the majority of our 55 million populace. According to Statistics SA young people between the ages of 15 and 34 continue to make up the bulk of the unemployed: two-thirds, or 5 million. Entrepreneurism has dropped among the youth on average of 2.6% and by 6.2% between 2009 and 2014.
Seminars, colloquia, conferences, workshops and all possible forms of societal engagements and dialogue must be pursued more than ever before between the youth of yesteryear,particularly veterans of the June 16 Uprisings. Many spent time in various countries of the world where they gathered invaluable education and experiences to share, including international experiences on how to effectively develop the economy, create jobs and ensure sustainable development. Their expertise would come in handy as the country strives for social cohesion and nation-building.