Youth Day allows us to cast our minds back to that fateful day on 16 June 1976 when thousands of young people protested, and 23 were murdered by the police, but it is also an opportunity to ponder on the meaning of the struggle to the youth of today.
To understand the significance and impact of the 16 June uprising, you have to place it within the socio-political context of the times. The apartheid regime had passed the Bantu Education Act in 1953 which had purposefully placed the development and edification of non-white children on a downward trajectory by limiting funding and subject matter. Concerned about the drop in the use of Afrikaans among black youths, the government passed the Afrikaans Medium Decree of 1974, which imposed Afrikaans as a medium of instruction in schools. Given the strong links to apartheid Afrikaans had, this was seen by the black youth as a further means of oppression.
The lack of schools became a serious problem as the youth of townships urbanised rapidly. Although there had been youth protests before 16 June, they had been uncoordinated and fairly easy to subdue.
On the morning of 16 June, thousands of students marched through the streets of Soweto to protest against apartheid in general and the use of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction in particular. What began as a peaceful demonstration quickly escalated into violence as the marching students found their route hemmed in by armed police. The police began to open fire, shooting indiscriminately at the protestors. By the end of the first day, 23 people were dead, including two whites, and hundreds more wounded. The students then rioted over the course of the next few days, expressing their outrage at the police brutality. The extent of the violence, and the extreme nature of the police reaction to the protest and subsequent riot, was encapsulated in the now iconic photo of a wounded Hector Petersen being carried away by Sam Nzima.
The day became a pivotal moment in the struggle against apartheid, partly because it became obvious that the government was going to have to rely on greater repression and violence to keep apartheid alive. It also focused and channelled the anti-apartheid sentiment of the black youth into constructive activism. Many of those who had been involved in the 16 June protest joined struggle organisations such as the ANC and the PAC.
I was born 1988.
My first year of school coincided with the first year of democratic elections in South Africa.
This is the point in the column where I relate my personal story of an upbringing in the new South Africa, where I gush and thank everyone from Nelson Mandela down to the tea lady in the ANC’s exile canteen (there probably wasn’t one, by the way, I made that bit up) for the fact that I never experienced apartheid. But I won’t because that story has been told by young people all over South Africa.
There is another story to be told here. We have, over the course of the last few years, been told that as young people, have a tragic disconnect to our past and the struggle that won our freedoms. Or that we simply don’t give two arses. We rush into the business sector to make money instead of devoting ourselves in service to the country.
There is a certain truth to that accusation. We do indeed display historical amnesia. Look at Julius Malema, who brazenly stated that the protest which lead to the Sharpeville massacre, now commemorated as Human Rights Day, was an ANC initiative, when the truth is that it was a PAC-initiated demonstration. We not only are unaware of where we come from, but we are quite happy to utilise this amnesia to bend history in any direction we please.
The first thing to understand is that we will never have the same emotional reaction to the struggle as those who lived through those periods have, simply because we weren’t there. We might see the consequences around us, but the past we never lived simply won’t have the same place in our hearts as our own experiences. It is, therefore, quite unfair in my view for those who were there in 1960 and 1976 to slate us for “not caring”. It’s something that is completely out of our control.
We are creatures of circumstance – we act upon and react to what life throws at us. Our circumstances allow us to become politically apathetic. Our struggle is not about politics – it’s about economics. Our struggle heroes are men like Herman Mashaba.
As difficult to understand as this may be for older generations, my view is that we are the struggle’s greatest triumph – young men and women who can seize all the opportunities presented to them without repression, who don’t have to live under discrimination because of the colour of our skins.
To all those who were there in 1976, and feel that we who came afterwards have thrown away history – we will always be indebted to you. Your sacrifices have granted us the opportunities we have today. Allow us to utilise them as we see best.
I see Youth Day as being so much more than a recognition of the sacrifices made all those years ago – it is also a celebration of the achievements and strides made by today’s generation of young people.
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Sipho Hlongwane is a writer and columnist for Daily Maverick. His other work interests also include motoring, music and technology, for which he has some awards. In a previous life, he drove forklift trucks, hosted radio shows, waited tables, and was once bitten by a large monitor lizard on his ankle. It hurt a lot. Arsenal Football Club is his only permanent obsession. He appears in these pages as a political correspondent.
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