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Tutu: ‘Those children taught me a very profound lesson’

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We owe a great debt to the generation that rose up against apartheid writes Desmond Tutu

To appreciate the contribution of the children of 1976 to achieving our democracy, it’s important to contextualise their actions in the horror of the time.

In the ’70s, the South African government was busily engaged in its programme to implement grand apartheid. Among its key activities was making life in the cities as nasty and unpleasant as possible for black people, to discourage urbanisation.

Popular dissent of the ’60s had been crushed, many anti-apartheid leaders were imprisoned or had been forced into exile, and preparations were advanced for the  declaration of independent bantustan republics.

The grand plan was for whites to remain citizens of South Africa, while blacks would become citizens of their own ethnic homelands —  even if they had never been there before.

Conditions in the townships were appalling:  insufficient housing, poor sanitation, overcrowded schools, rigid enforcement of pass laws and consequent destruction of family lives, constant police harassment at home and on the streets …

But Soweto’s children didn’t agree with the plan. There was a steady build-up of pressure, and on June 16 1976  they exploded into action. The straw that broke the camel’s back, as it were, was their refusal to accept being taught in  Afrikaans. But, in reality, they were confronting indignity, inhumanity and injustice. On behalf of their community.

They displayed an utter disregard for their own physical safety, braving everything that the militaristic might of the police force could shoot at them —  proving to their parents that it was possible to keep the dream of a better country alive.

They did it completely selflessly: with no thought of tenders, fancy cars and clothing, or securing jobs for their cousins. They were willing to lay down their lives, to fight for justice, equity and freedom even if they might, themselves, never taste it. They did it because it was right. And they did it together.

A policeman drags a Gugulethu man shot during the 1976 uprising. The picture is part of the 1976/360 exhibition at the University of Cape Town’s Centre for African Studied gallery. Image: Johan Kuus

They were the key that opened the door to popular anti-apartheid resistance in the ’80s that ultimately led to our negotiated settlement and democratic elections.

Thinking back, those children taught me a very profound lesson. After June 16 I knew that young people are the people who drive change. They don’t directly wield financial clout, or control  the levers of political power. But they have a unique ability to see through the fog of their time, and the courage (what some might call the recklessness of youth) to confront demons that have us oldies diving under our beds. They have the power to persuade the powerful.

It was therefore no surprise, in the ’90s and 2000s, that young people led the HIV/Aids treatment revolution in South Africa. It is no surprise that young people are leading the global response to climate change. And there is little doubt that they will win.

Twelve children died in Soweto on  June 16 1976, but their courage was contagious and resistance spread across the land.

Two days later, police had claimed 93 young lives. By the end of February 1977, the official death toll  stood at 575 — many of them children.

Thousands were imprisoned or crossed the borders into exile, injecting new blood and thinking into old resistance organisations.

The state went ahead and created the independent bantustans, and clung to power —  taking brutality to new levels —  for another 13 years. But never with the same confidence and swagger of the pre-June 1976 era.

The 1976 generation had irrevocably changed the landscape. They had mortally wounded grand apartheid. From then on, an increasingly isolated South African state was forced to seek the means to cling to —  and ultimately retain a controlling share of —   power, rather than simply brandishing it with  impunity as it had done in the past.

After the 1994 elections, our democratic government — which included members of the 1976 generation — made June 16 one of our new public holidays. Youth Day. And  June is considered Youth Month.

But much of the meaning of  June 16 1976 has been lost. We do youth-related things in June, but the spirit of self-sacrifice, almost self-forgetfulness for a higher cause, of common purpose, is no longer there. The spirit of determined servant leadership is gone.

Lost, but not irrecoverable; gone, but not forgotten.

The baton the youth carried in 1976 is today in the hands of a new generation. A new generation that is being asked to make sense of a 22-year transformation road littered with potholes —  of a country of hideous inequity, still too racially defined, with a government grappling with issues of morality, fiscal management and consumptiveness. Of a world skidding close to the edge of environmental calamity.

The greatest honour we can do the generation of 1976 is to emulate their selflessness, pick up their baton and do for others as we’d have others do for us.

[Source: Times Live]

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