First Thing, Daily Maverick's flagship newsletter

Join the 230 000 South Africans who read First Thing newsletter.

Of the rebelliousness of youth and the dulling effect o...

Defend Truth


Of the rebelliousness of youth and the dulling effect of time

Despite so many, many earnest attempts to call back the past, with each year’s passage the passion and pathos of the actual events we commemorate risk becoming but another pentimento in the great panorama of history. By J BROOKS SPECTOR.

Around a quarter century ago, I was reminiscing with a Japanese friend about our separate but similar experiences in protesting against the Vietnam War at our respective universities in the late 1960s. She had been at a North American university out west and I had been just outside Washington, DC. But for both of us, that period seemed somehow brighter, more urgent and more important than any other time.

It was almost as if everything in life had led up to those moments of transcendent purpose and had then led away from it, downhill to a quotidian present. The conversation seemed to have had the tang of what it must have been like for ancient Greeks as they talked about their legendary Golden Age, in contrast to decidedly more pedestrian current circumstances.

A few years back, I ended up on the email list of former University of Cape Town students who had joined a 1968 sit-in to protest that university’s backing down from its offer of employment as a university lecturer to Archie Mafeje due to government pressure. The sit-in had been sufficiently noteworthy in students’ lives that even before the reunion had happened, there had been months of increasingly vigorous debate on the Internet about what all that activity and energy ultimately meant – and whether or not it had had a hand in igniting growing opposition to the apartheid regime. By the time the reunion took place, the 40th anniversary gathering of the sit-in attracted a now-decidedly-late-middle-aged alumni from around the world for commemorative dinners and a campus walk-about, looking at what must have seemed a battleground from a now-lost, submerged world.

In the same way, one can easily imagine the increasingly grizzled survivors of the Paris Commune, gathering in their favourite bistros, decades after 1870, remembering how it was – or should have been – before the Prussians entered Paris. Or, perhaps a generation earlier, the unsuccessful revolutionaries of 1848 across Europe must have gathered on anniversaries to commemorate their dashed hopes. And it is easy to visualise in our own time the middle-aged survivors and veterans of the 1968 student unrest in America, in Germany, Japan and France, in Mexico or China’s “Cultural Revolution” as well, just as with the former UCT students, who must occasionally come together for reunions – and perhaps funerals now, too.

While revolutions are often inspired by the speeches of folks in their forties like all those Trotskys and Lenins, the revolutions themselves are carried out by the young; soldiers, students and idealistic drifters in their teens and early twenties. It must be a fundamental law of revolts that the young actually make them happen. Perhaps this is because youth thinks itself invulnerable, but perhaps too, it is because young people have energy and enthusiasm. But most especially because they believe that, unlike in the past, this time they can shake the world and make the future happen.

And so too, it must have been with Soweto’s high school students in June 1976 – especially those at the epicentre of the movement as at Morris Isaacson High School. I knew that school pretty well in the 1970s as a junior US diplomat where I came to know Morris Isaacson’s headmaster, L M Mathabathe. He and some of his teachers, like the school’s young science master, Fanyana Mazibuko, had an amazing hold over the minds of their students. Morris Isaacson High School was a school where ideas were discussed; where ideas – well beyond the rigid, required, formal “Bantu Education” syllabus – mattered. Where people argued about what was right and wrong. As Mazibuko described the school to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission some years later:

“Morris Isaacson was a highly disciplined school, almost military in its discipline. The other side of Morris Isaacson is that it was politically aware. In my arrival at Morris Isaacson a number of things happened which indicated this. Examples of this political awareness and the leadership of the principal as a politically aware person is firstly the [Abram] Tiro case. In the Tiro case the principal decided to employ a person who had been expelled from a university… against the wishes of the department of education. And secondly there was the allowing by the principal of the formation of several organisations on the premises, including, for example, the formation of the organisation, which was first called the Azanian People’s Writers Association, which was initially AZAPWA, but later changed to Medupi Writer’s Association.…”

Mazibuko had been part of the Black Consciousness Movement that had engaged a growing number of students in the early 1970s. Now that he had become a teacher, he had a charisma that seized the imaginations of his students. He had just returned from one of those one-month American visits offered by the US embassy where he had met leading science educators as well as black-nationalist writers and thinkers and even foundation executives interested in African education. Given this kind of intellectual energy, when we brought American guest speakers to Soweto, Morris Isaacson’s headmaster and teachers like Mazibuko were among our first points of contact.

Mathabathe was also president of the Transvaal United African Teachers Association, one of the largest, most powerful African organisations in the country. It seems a lifetime later, but I still vividly remember taking an American education professor to Tuata’s annual general meeting. In a crowded church hall, we listened intently to our guest speaker. Gatherings like that made one think hard about the potential power of teachers in black South Africa in the 1970s, even under apartheid’s limits.

Thinking back on that meeting, and others like it, I realise there were no visible, even implicit, references to the ANC’s leaders, its history or ideology, although the impact of Black Consciousness ideology was there for all to see. Of course, the time of the United Democratic Front and the return of exiles would come, but that was still well into the future.

Then, in April 1976, in an effort to tighten control over the educational system in black townships, the government decided to enforce its earlier policy that half of the subjects in African high schools – and especially the demanding topics such as mathematics and science – would be taught in Afrikaans. This was despite the fact virtually no African teachers were qualified to teach in that language and hardly any student was competent to study in it. Soweto’s residents saw this as yet another effort to dumb down further the quality of education so that students would only be competent to become those “hewers of wood and haulers of water” in accord with National Party apartheid ideology. Reporters with a feel for Soweto kept predicting no good would come of this. Increasingly too, my colleagues and I heard from principals, teachers, students, social workers, priests and parents alike that this policy would only come to tears.

As it happened, I was planning to visit Morris Isaacson High School on 16 June to speak with Mazibuko about future projects that might build on his recent US experiences. Some hiccup came up so we couldn’t keep that appointment and rescheduled for another day. And then, of course, absolutely everything changed. The students marched, demanding the banishment of Afrikaans from schools, then the abolition of Bantu Education and ultimately, to change what had become an intolerable noose around their necks.

At first, the marchers in school uniforms were disciplined, but a white education department employee was killed, the police arrived and fired live ammunition, the students threw rocks in reply – and then it became a day of running and dying. Like everyone else, embassy officers were in a state of confusion. Was this something really big? Would it spread to other parts of Soweto or even to the rest of the country? Who was in charge, who was leading this movement, what did they really want? How many were hurt, killed, arrested?

If one ignored a lonely strike or two in places like Durban’s docks, it had been more than a decade since anything similar had happened in Spouth Africa – Sharpeville and the march on Parliament were long gone. The Defiance Campaign and the Women’s March were even further back in the past. Any PAC and ANC leader not exiled abroad was already in the Old Fort, on Robben Island or under house arrest. And so, how could this be happening?

On the night of 16 June, after all the contradictory reports we had heard, I was sitting at a kitchen table with a young, black paediatric surgeon who had just come home from Baragwaneth Hospital in Soweto. Stunned, shocked, near-incoherence, he described a hellish day in which he had operated on students who had been shot by police – almost all of them in the back. The famous pieta-like photograph by Sam Nzima of a dead Hector Peterson had not yet evolved into a worldwide symbol of South Africa. Police were still telling journalists that only a few students had been hurt, that nothing serious was happening and that everything was under control. But, of course, everything had changed and nothing was under control. Just 10 days later, The New York Times’ correspondent in South Africa wrote:

“Sometime between 7:30 and 9 AM Wednesday, June 16, a march of schoolchildren in the black township of Soweto turned into one of the worst racial riots in South African history….The language protest had been building and there were boycotts in several schools. A week earlier a teacher was stabbed. A member of the Soweto Council, a black group, had warned two days before the riots that unless the authorities dealt quickly with the language issue, the protest could lead to violence.”

And only a year later, that paper’s battle-hardened reporter, John Burns, could observe from Johannesburg that:

“The deaths of the Peterson boy and of more than 600 other blacks in the upheaval that followed the riots in the black township of Soweto fundamentally altered the politics of the country’s 18.6 million blacks. Under pressure from teen-age students, the pursuit of piecemeal changes has been discredited amid a clamor for complete equality with the 4.3 million South African whites.

“The Government has stood firm…. However the unity of Afrikanerdom has been fractured, with powerful forces, some of them inside Prime Minister John Vorster’s Cabinet, urging the scrapping of racial subordination in favor of equal partnership.

“Abroad, the Western powers, ending decades of acquiescence in apartheid, have joined the challenge long posed by the Communist countries and the third world…. ‘In the ultimate end, it is violence that will give us our freedom,’ said a 20-year-old who said his name was Disebo.”

And South Africa’s grand old man of literature and ex-Liberal Party stalwart, Alan Paton, in despair could write in September 1976, as he contemplated the long dark journey ahead for South Africans:

“The deep cause is not Afrikaans. It is the long, terrible burden of the cruel and discriminatory laws. It is the rising in the small hours of the morning, the congested buses and trains, the work for wages on which it is often impossible to live a human life, the congested, often dangerous journey back home on paydays, the arrival home too tired to worry about what the children have been doing, or how they are growing up….

“There is another deep cause of the current, destructive demonstrations – the stirring of black consciousness and the realisation of black power, which was given powerful impetus by the fall of Marcello Caetano in Portugal and the liberation of Angola and Mozambique, filling many with fear….

“Afrikaner politicians have for the last 28 years been digging for their people – and mine – a grave so big and so deep that I don’t know if they will ever get out. They know change is imperative, but they are as afraid to make change as they are not to make it.”

Change did come eventually – but only after so much more bloodshed and the near-collapse into civil war until that remarkably peaceful transition in 1994. Along the way, the angry commemorations of 16 June’s  violence have now morphed into the country’s ritualised celebrations of Youth Day. But move to 16 June 2010 and the start of the Fifa World Cup, where Jackie Bischoff could observe for The Times a whole different spirit for celebration.

“For many South Africans, public holidays usually revolve around the braai… [but this] Wednesday’s Youth Day may be different. The braai will compete with the TV for attention, as South Africans watch the home team, Bafana Bafana (the Boys), take on Uruguay in Pretoria.

“We’re touched by the fact that this match is taking place on South African ground on the anniversary of the Soweto uprising…. As a country, we have far to go in correcting social imbalances. But really, it is in the spirit of celebrating our history, our defiant nature and our country’s youth that South Africans will unite to celebrate this game on this day. Only one question remains: Where’s the braai?”

And this year, of course, the ANC’s Youth League could virtually absorb 16 June into its national conference as it re-elected an increasingly well-fed, well-heeled, early middle-aged man whose sly rhetoric inspires many with his goals of nationalising the country’s mines, branding his white countrymen and women as criminals, and leading the steeplechase towards the rent-seeking behaviour South Africans call “tenderpreneurship” (the steering of government contracts towards the politically favoured). Was Alan Paton right after all in his warnings about the sins of the fathers now being visited upon their children and their children’s children? In his moment of despair, he had ended his 1976 article:

“The poor and the hungry and the dispossessed keep knocking at the door. Some members of his family urge him to open the door and others tell him that he must never open the door. Then comes the final imperious knock, and he knows at last that he must open. And when he opens it, it is Death who is waiting for him.

“May it not be so.”

But despite the deep fissures in this society, the massive youth unemployment, and a Gini co-efficient of economic disparity that’s virtually unmatched worldwide, the newest generation in South Africa may still be able to shrug off that eschatological siren call to enter a new revolutionary golden age and, simultaneously, prove Alan Paton wrong in his fears about a coming apocalypse. And Soweto’s students’ belief in a better future reaches well beyond South Africa.  DM

For more, read:

Photo: Crowds chant slogans during a ceremony to commemorate the anniversary of the Soweto Uprising in Soweto June 16,2006. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko


Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted