Young, Gifted, Black and still left behind: South Africa’s youth struggle continues 45 years later

Young, Gifted, Black and still left behind: South Africa’s youth struggle continues 45 years later
Enoch Sitole (6) from Soweto admires the famous photograph taken by Sam Nzima of Hector Pieterson.

Anger and bitterness linger on the anniversary of the 1976 Soweto uprising. Some say the youth have it better than then, others say there’s just a different oppressor.

First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.

Sitting in the living room of his Orlando East home, the very home where he was arrested in 1976, Seth Mazibuko’s anger was rising as he gave successive interviews before the commemoration of the June 16 Soweto uprising.

“Instead of counting books for children of the time, I counted corpses. I will never, I will never, I will never live again my normal. And I still feel guilty of that. What makes me more guilty is what they died for is not yet achieved,” he said.

This Wednesday marks 45 years since students marched in Orlando, Soweto, in 1976 and were gunned down by police, who waged a brutal campaign against teenage leaders as the protests spread. The uprising was sparked by the imposition of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction, and Bantu Education in general, but the real target was the apartheid system – white oppression.

Mazibuko was deputy to student leader Tsietsi Mashinini in the Student Action Committee that planned the protests. Arrested in July 1976, he spent 11 months in solitary confinement before he was sentenced to seven years on Robben Island.

As President Cyril Ramaphosa and government leaders prepared to honour the youth of ’76, Mazibuko lamented what he sees as the betrayal of his generation’s ideals.

“Did I lose the days of my youth for this? No,” he said.

“I lost the days of my youth so that there should be a decolonised education system, so that there should be free education, so that the land should be brought back to those who own it, who are the real owners, so that a mother in Soweto should not be in a shack but should be in a house with security and comfort.”

Soweto today isn’t the Soweto of 1976. Some residents of the area, one of the country’s oldest townships, are now middle class. Most children still go to school in the region but many attend formerly white schools in the suburbs. The standard of living has undoubtedly improved, yet a familiar refrain is: “It’s not yet uhuru.”

Down the road from Mazibuko’s home, Brian Motshabi, Teboho Motaung and Nhlanhla Ngubeni sat in Louis Hlube’s living room on Wednesday, 9 June, debating whether the youth had it better now than in 1976. The four men are in their 50s and were primary school students during the uprising, but they all remember the violence and how they fought police with stones and slingshots.

“Every generation has its own challenges,” said Hlube.

They described today’s youth as privileged, disunited, lacking focus and discipline. “Life is easy for them but to reach your goals is not easy,” said Motshabi.

His friends chastised him for the contradiction. They agreed the youth in the area, 45 years after the uprisings, had more opportunities today – but suffered from government corruption, unemployment, drugs and a lack of recreational and sporting facilities.

The men are still loyal to the ANC but feel let down by the democratic government. They are all struggling to find work, despite their experience, and don’t see any opportunities to pass their skills on to the youth. “Right now we’re write-offs,” said Hlube.

“We’re really not free,” said Ngubeni. “It’s only eased. The struggle for us, it only eased.”

Hlube interjected: “Because we’re still complaining about the same thing.”

In his home in Orlando East, now a heritage site, Mazibuko quoted Solomon Mahlangu, who left the country after the uprising to join uMkhonto weSizwe, and returned in 1977.

Mahlangu was charged and executed after the Goch Street shootings in Johannesburg. His last words are now famous: “My blood will nourish the tree that will bear the fruits of freedom.”

Mazibuko asked: “Are our young people today enjoying the fruit of that tree? No. Are they even enjoying the shade? They are not, otherwise we would not have Fees Must Fall. Otherwise we’re not supposed to be having [Andries] Tatane being killed. Otherwise we’re not supposed to be having Marikana,” he said.

“That same blood in 1960 in Sharpeville under apartheid became the same blood in 1976 and still the same blood now. I don’t hear of white blood, I hear of black blood.”

They are the ones who sold out. Some of them are sell-outs. I think it’s time now that we tell them the way it is. These are the same people who take their kids and grandkids to private school while other kids walk at least 12km to school and we have to find the money to finance these kids.

Mazibuko recently took a taxi from Orlando to central Joburg. An elderly lady recognised the former student leader and community activist and could not understand why he was taking public transport and didn’t own a car. For Mazibuko, still loyal to Steve Biko’s Black Consciousness ideals, it summed up SA’s current problems: leaders are seen as disconnected and focused on accumulating wealth. He described 1994 as the “illegitimate child” of 1976 and the Constitution’s concessions to white South Africans as a betrayal. “I don’t think we’re unchained yet and we still can’t breathe as black people. We’re still having someone with his knee on our neck and we’re crying out. To me, it is just the same horse but a different jockey.”

Rocks and threads of burnt tyres line the road to Keith Teboho Matima’s home in Dube, Soweto. Residents have been protesting across Soweto for weeks against electricity outages, but Matima, a student at Morris Isaacson High School in 1976 who went into exile after the uprising, is more positive about the advances made during democracy.

The playing field in education has been levelled and students in township schools have access to better facilities than in 1976. They benefit from the school feeding programme, said Matima. Kids had a reason to go to school now, unlike in 1976 when the quality of education was so poor many saw no point in attending.

He described the advances made since 1994 as “half empty, half full”. “It will take a very long time to eliminate apartheid mentality and racism. It will take a very long time for our schools and education to fully transform,” he said.

Of the ongoing protests in the area, Matima said: “Dube, Soweto, is just a microcosm of the country.”

Some of those who lived through 1976 blamed today’s youth for failing to take their future into their own hands and discarding community values for individual gratification.

Tebogo Magafane, secretary-general of the Congress of South African Students, hit back. “They are the ones who sold out. Some of them are sell-outs. I think it’s time now that we tell them the way it is. These are the same people who take their kids and grandkids to private school while other kids walk at least 12km to school and we have to find the money to finance these kids,” Magafane said.

“Their struggle and our struggle aren’t the same. As we speak today, some of them are selling the ANC. We are loyal to the ANC, not them. They mustn’t test us.”

Mugwena Maluleke, general secretary of the South African Democratic Teachers Union, said the legacy of the class of ’76 was evident in the education sector, with fee-free schools for the poor and meals available for students. Despite corruption, which Maluleke said must be tackled, the country had progressive education policies and had made significant advances in education.

Mazibuko, however, is adamant that the current state of affairs is not what the youth fought for: “If you want to know the spirit of 1976, the spirit of Steve Biko and the spirit of Black Consciousness. If you want to know the spirit of Bantu Education, the spirit of [Hendrik] Verwoerd. Where my problem is, that spirit of Verwoerd lives on and the spirit of Steve Biko is dying.”

Down the road, Hlube and his friends discussed how today’s young people could confront their challenges. “The youth must change this whole kind of system, it’s their tomorrow,” he said.

But Motshabi asked: “If our tomorrow is so bad, how will their tomorrow be?”

Hlube said the youth needed to unite and fight again to liberate themselves and their parents. “Let the country burn again.” DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for free to Pick n Pay Smart Shoppers at these Pick n Pay stores.


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Johann Olivier says:

    Voting matters. Hold office holders accountable. Only then will things change. Too many ANC voters are falling into the same trap the Nats did. Party first…no matter what. That is never a good thing. It begets a Trump…or worse. (Everyone should be an ‘Independent’…)

  • Ian McGill says:

    Please someone explain to me what exactly is decolonised education . Or who are the “rightful” owners? By whose right? Shall we re-establish the old tribes and go back to the “old’ ways? No the only thing that can be shaped is the future . We know the past is to blame , leave it alone, learn from it.

  • Coen Gous says:

    In years to come, the youth of today, and from 2007 and still some years to come, will be remembered as the lost generation/s. At a time when we should celebrate democracy, solid growth, and a better live for all, the country is at its worse state since the birth of a new democracy. And still, no light at the end of the tunnel.

  • Charles Thatcher says:

    The 1976 generation was betrayed by their its own liberation movement. The most cunning ANC comrades benefited from the children’s sacrifice. The first wave of post 1994 cadres were selected by white capital for directorships, in order to buy favour, and also time to move money/businesses offshore. The second wave seized benefits by firing Mbeki and looting state (taxpayer’s) assets. The third wave will conceal their looting, and are selling now-collapsed essential services back to the state/taxpayers. All the evidence of this process is out there, luckily highlighted by the DMs superb journalists.

  • Miles Japhet says:

    This article, like so many others, blames apartheid for the ills of our country.
    Time to take responsibility for the dysfunctional, thieving government.
    A culture of self help, hard work and perseverance underlies the success of many non black South Africans.
    The ANC could learn from that and the quicker they dump socialist/communist ideology, the sooner poor South Africans will have real hope for a better life.

    • Coen Gous says:


    • Fanie Rajesh Ngabiso says:

      Like it or not, and regardless of any justification, apartheid is responsible for disenfranchising a huge percentage of our population. Had the government focused on upliftment rather than separation, we would all enjoy a very different – and very much more cohesive and functional – South Africa today. So, before you judge – spend a week in a shack – commute to work in a broken train, spending a 1/3 of your salary on transport – watch your children go hungry – watch the inheritors of your ancestors erstwhile oppressors “living the life”, one you can’t even dream of …and then maybe you will get a sense of the resentment felt. Fact: The National party messed up BIG. Fact: many many people are still suffering because of it. Fact: with no education you can’t expect people to vote in the way you seem to want them to. Fact: The ANC itself is a product of apartheid. So here’s a suggestion: try adopting a stance with a higher likelihood of positive outcome by saying “what can I personally do to help fix this country”; Can I help educate a child?; Can I donate to a charity? – there are many options.

  • Sydney Kaye says:

    “I lost the days of my youth so that there should be a decolonised education system, so that there should be free education, so that the land should be brought back to those who own it, who are the real owners, “
    It’s understandable that you fell for that as an kid but not that you spent 45 years whining about it while your neighbours became middle class. You are right the ANC let you down but because they feed you that entitlement, and it will get worse if they manage to return the land “to its rightful owners”.

  • Coen Gous says:

    All comments posted to this article are highly credible and commendable. And justifiably so because the article deserves respect. But there is another article on DM online, posted much lower, written by a DM journalist called Zukiswa Pikoli that everyone should read, and I hope that Branco and his team keep it posted for a long time. To me Zukiswa’s article is an eye opener, and something that makes me feel better about so many things, yet ashamed. The world today, and South Africa, is bombarded on a daily basis by negativity, as a result of so much bad news, every minute of the day. Zukiswa’s article inspired me, like I last felt listening to Amanda Gorman’s poem at President Biden’s inauguration in January

    • The Proven says:

      wide views in the comments, but some misconceptions. Whites dont control big business anymore – its convenient for the rich blacks to drive that false narrative. Not a single coal mine in the entire SA is owned by whites anymore – all are black owned. 70% of middle and high income tax payers are black, as per Stats SA. Blacks control SA.

      • Coen Gous says:

        You know why I love DM, because its readers are generally speaking well educated (not necessarily academically) and certainly well informed. Opinions can vary significantly, but there is freedom of speech without being rude or insulting (ala Malema). I learn everyday because of comments made by readers, articles asisde

    • J.F. Aitchison says:

      Coen Gous. The article you refer to by Zukiswa Pikoli. I had difficulty finding it. After two days it’s no longer in the main body of DM articles. An internal search of DM for “Zukiswa Pikoli” reveals the following’
      Civil service: Our country’s history and blueprint demand that all of us be activists. by Zukiswa Pikoli – 12/06/2021.
      I presume this is the article you refer to. Thanks for bringing it to my attention. It is thought provoking and important. (I wonder if 28 years teaching at a Technikon qualifies!?)

  • Jamie WHITELAW says:

    I note that Antoine Van Gelder seems to believe that the answers are in the teachings of Frantz Fanon.
    Most intelligent and well read people, both black and white no longer believe the rubbish that he spouted. I believe that in the past he had many converts…..Winnie Mandela comes to mind.

    • Antoine van Gelder says:

      Dear Jamie,

      In your rush to be so rude to me you have unfortunately missed the point entirely and only managed to cloud an important issue.

      Whether Frantz Fanon has the answers or not is besides the point for the purposes of the conversation.

      Ian McGill’s was asking for an explanation of de-colonized education.

      Given that Fanon is considered to be one of the founding fathers of post-colonial thinking it is impossible to have a conversation on this topic without starting with his work.

      Again, whether his work is “right” is not the issue here if we wish to understand the origin and development of de-colonization as a theory and practice to the study of our own history, tragic present and possible futures.

      I say these things not for your benefit, as you clearly have no interest in learning, but rather for the other Daily Maverick readers who may wish to cast their horizons wider.

      A good day to you.

  • Peter Worman says:

    One of the biggest lies the ANC promised their electorate was free schooling, houses and electricity etc. 27 years later the free housing means a cheap and nasty 2 bedroomed house and free education means a 38% pass mark and the free electricity has just disappeared. Even under apartheid there was nothing for free, heavily subsidised yes but not free. And lest we forget, the founding fathers of the so-called democracy weren’t interested in delivering on these promises, they did not, as was infamously said, join the struggle to remain poor.

  • Fanie Rajesh Ngabiso says:

    This is the true tragedy of apartheid. Today I drove past countless shacks and countless people with the same story to tell. To all those many many suffering I can only say this: Burning achieves only destruction; it is the wrong path. Vote for peace. Vote for collaboration. Vote for schooling for all. Vote for law enforcement for all. Vote for parties, not people. And then – hardest of all – be patient. Good things take time, but they will come.

  • J.F. Aitchison says:

    Plenty of interesting and thought provoking comments here.

    “The men are still loyal to the ANC but feel let down by the democratic government. They are all struggling to find work, despite their experience, and don’t see any opportunities to pass their skills on to the youth.”

    They certainly have been let down by the democratic government (ANC). What I find almost unbelievably inexplicable is why they continue to blindly support a party that for the past 27 years has sold them down the river.

    If for whatever reason you don’t like the current opposition party, take the matter into your own hands. Start a new, all-inclusive opposition movement / party.

    To continue supporting a party that has betrayed you and is in the process of destroying your children’s future is mindbogglingly incomprehensible.

  • Cecilia Wedgwood says:

    And, are “the ones sending their children to private schools” not the very ones that said “liberation before Education”!? remember the schools virtually closed. It was maybe not wonderful education but their were pockets of excellence and better than nothing.

    And it is not One lost generation it is Three.

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