Defend Truth


Dear Mandarins in the Public Service, Let’s Recall 16 June 1976


Busani Ngcaweni is Director-General of the National School of Government, South Africa.

There is no fitting tribute to the sacrifices of the youth of 1976 than implementing fully policies aimed at transforming our education system. We have the means, the tools, and significantly, political will backed by a popular mandate.

When chronicling milestones towards the fall of apartheid, an odious system declared a crime against humanity by the United Nations, 16 June 1976 takes pride of place. Not least because this political development changed our history forever by not only universalising our experience in graphic fashion but also because it set in motion the liberatory impulse in the soil of our nation across generations.

The calamity witnessed on this day exceeded what befell people in the Bulhoek massacre, the Bhambatha Rebellion and the Sharpeville Massacre. Not so much in terms of numbers but more for the systematic and vicious nature of violence against unarmed teenagers. June 16 is significant because the apartheid regime actively and knowingly butchered school children with modern weaponry in broad daylight.

Yes, massacres by their nature contain no mercy. In neo-Nazi states like apartheid South Africa, it would be unreasonable to expect mercy, more so because the victims were regarded as sub-human. Yet such brutality as witnessed in the June 76 uprising was enough to convince even the doubting Thomas’ that South Africa had a paranoid regime married to fascist ideals of controlling all aspects of African’s lives, with nothing but cheap labour to offer. They were systematically removed from the country’s body politic.

It is a matter of historical record that the 16 June uprising was not a spontaneous act of rebellion by young people against a sudden introduction of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction. The root cause goes as far back as 1948 when the National Party won elections (although already immediately after the formation of the Union of South Africa in 1910 successive efforts were made by the union government to provide inferior education to black people).

As leader of the new racially-based state, Dr DF Malan appointed Dr HF Verwoerd as Minister of Native Affairs whose main purpose was to implement a policy of separate development, or more appropriately, to ensure that Africans stood no chance of development.

In dealing with the “native question”, Verwoerd crafted the Bantu Education system based on his conviction that “there is no place for the native in the European community” and that Africans were incapable of rising “above the level of certain forms of labour”. The native, he continued, “has been subjected to a school system which drew him away from his own community and misled him by showing him the green pastures of European society in which he was not allowed to graze”.

And so the Bantu Education Act 47 of 1953 was passed to drive Africans from the green pastures of “white civilisation”. To ensure total onslaught, Verwoerd went as far as starving mission schools of subsidies since they had no obligation to implement Bantu Education. Given miniscule per-capita spend on the education of black children, depriving independent schools of funds squeezed out possible quality learning opportunities for non-Europeans.

But the most important components of Bantu Education was government’s takeover of teacher training colleges and the introduction of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction for at least half of the school subjects. The two are not mutually exclusive. If every black child had to learn half the subjects in Afrikaans, every teacher had to learn the same and acquire the ability to use it in class. And so the policy was rolled out in 1953 for “Coloureds” and 1965 for Indians.

It was only in 1974/75 that the 50/50 English/Afrikaans rule was strictly applied to Africans, starting in the Transvaal. Reasons given for this gradualism were that teachers had to master the art of teaching maths and social sciences in Afrikaans and learning material had to be available. And sure teachers did learn the language since the system used its control of colleges to “prepare” them for the ultimate roll-out of the project.

Whereas some elements of “flexibility” existed in the policy – African schools could choose the main language of instruction – in practice, the exemption principle was ignored and administrators of the southern Transvaal education directorate forcibly introduced Afrikaans.

All this happened in a context where a plethora of repressive laws were robustly implemented while draconian measures were employed to stifle any form of resistance to the apartheid system. Pass laws were enforced. The Group Areas Act was in place. The Sharpeville Massacre had taken place along with the Langa Massacre and other atrocities. The Rivonia Trial had ended, sending many in the leadership of the liberation movement to prison. Others were tortured, killed or exiled.

The 1973 Coronation Strike, a labour uprising in a bricks factory (KwaMagenqe) in Avoca interrupted the post-Sharpeville hiatus. Historical records say the regime tried to end the strike by asking the new King Zwelithini KaBhekuzulu and Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi to intervene. The strike eventually ended but the spirit of resistance was reawakened nationally, building on the agitation of young students like Bantu Biko. In less than 24 months after this strike, government announced that it was ready to implement the Afrikaans medium policy universally. And sure it did.

This signalled total control of “Bantu Affairs”. Land had been taken; Bantustans created as enclaves along tribal lines; further industrial laws passed to restrict and control movement of African labour; townships and hostels created for urban reserve labour force; every political activity was banned and penalties went as far as capital punishment. Every social and economic space had been colonised, now it was the mind.

Why is all of this important for the public sector mandarins in post-apartheid South Africa?

First, we learn that the Bantu Education policy “succeeded” because of the confluence of policy and praxis. Apartheid architects made sure that once the policy was in place, all layers of the state machinery (especially public sector managers) were ready to implement it. This applied to national, provincial and Bantustan government officials, teacher training colleges, school inspectors and district officials as well as school administrators. Where necessary, even the police were ready to enforce the implementation of this policy.

This account of history demands of us as bureaucrats in a democratic dispensation to devote ourselves to the efforts of creating a quality education system that empowers young people to fully participate in all aspects of economic, political and social life of South Africa; an education system that remembers Africans for the dismemberment of apartheid colonialism eroded their ontological density, their being, their agency.

We are called to action to actualise the imperative of having learners and teachers in school, on time, teaching. It is us who must ensure that learner support materials are procured and delivered to all schools on time; we must ensure that indigent learners are fed and offered safe transport. Money allocated to upgrade school facilities must be applied for that purpose. Squandering monies aimed at improving the quality of education of a black child is the highest act of dishonour to the service.

There is no fitting tribute to the sacrifices of the youth of 1976 than implementing fully policies aimed at transforming our education system. We have the means, the tools, and significantly, political will backed by a popular mandate.

Second, no society changes without decisive interventions in education. This reminds one of a debate with Prince Mashele who wrongly attributed poor education outcomes to public policy. Employing caricature, he contrasted apples and oranges: Japan and South Africa at different historical epochs between 1868 and 2010.

Betraying his own reminder that the “weight of history influences current conditions”, he drew inconsequential parallels between education outcomes of the two countries without due consideration of the conditions that influenced such outcomes.

A word of caution I offered to Mashele ought to have been obvious: the corresponding period of the Meiji dynasty of Japan (1868 – 1912) was a time of colonial wars and internal displacement that produced devastating results for the indigenous people. Boer Republics were starving-off British advance which intensified in pursuit of control of the newly discovered precious metals.

What we now call the South African War (formerly Anglo-Boer War) – in recognition of the role played by Africans and other racial groups – shaped internal conditions and resulted in public policies that systematically excluded the majority from meaningful participation in the economic and political life of the country. The formation of the Union of South Africa in 1910 gave the trusteeship of the country to a minority settler group. The Bantu Education policy of 1953 sealed the fate of Africans, intellectually and culturally.

From this short history we deduce that many of the problems facing our society today emanate from the racially inspired successive laws of the illegitimate minority government. Many historians and educationist have made correct attributions in this regard.

What I affirmed though from Prince Mashele’s then Sunday Independent treatise was the assertion that “often, the weight of history does impose itself on generations far beyond the immediacy of an historic moment”.

It goes without saying therefore that by identifying education as priority number one, government aimed to alter the weight of history of colonialism and apartheid that imposed itself on successive generations. Once again, ours in the public service is a basic yet revolutionary task: to ensure that learners and teachers are at school, on time, learning, teaching; to deliver books on time; to enrol teachers in further training programmes; to disburse financial aid to all needy students, especially those in scarce skills professions like education, engineering, science, accounting, etc.

In an accountable, professional and conscientious civil service that we aspire for, we ought to regard these as non-negotiables, and go on to build a peer pressure mechanism to the extent of shaming our colleagues who undermine efforts to intensify the delivery of quality education from early childhood education to higher education.

In short, it is to ensure that the doors of learning and culture are open for all. Ultimately, true to the statement that education is the greatest equaliser, the challenge of youth unemployment will be undermined if we all did what we have to do to actualise this government priority.

Along this important task of delivering quality education, public-service mandarins are expected to accelerate the implementation of other state-led youth development programmes. Moreover, youth development does not happen in a vacuum. It occurs in each and every state intervention implemented by public servants. Young people need water, shelter, economic infrastructure and quality healthcare. They need funds for their businesses. They need access to value chains to supply their products. As the Freedom Charter declares, they need to access affordable and decolonised higher education – the doors of education and culture shall be open. Therefore, every state policy implemented by public sector managers is vital for youth development.

Finally, if we all accept that Bantu Education was the most perverted form of colonial education systems globally, it stands to reason therefore that national calls for decolonised education are beyond legitimate, if not overdue. We need to continue searching for innovative ways of making our system responsive, informed by the pedagogy of total liberation (not just liberal democracy) to the extent that through education, black people can reclaim their ontological density, their being, their agency.

So, as we remember those who perished in June 1976, we should also remember the potency of our action in building the democratic developmental state where education policies (and all other social and economic development programmes) seek to unleash the potential of young people to fully participate in all activities of the evolving national democratic society which must ultimately be characterised by non-racialism, non-sexism, democracy and prosperity for all.

Becoming a professional, responsive, prudent and efficient civil service would be a fitting tribute to the youth of 1976, the martyrs of our freedom who sacrificed their future in the service of the greater ideal: liberation. That spirit of sacrifice should be our zeitgeist, an antidote to the now creeping democratic indifference. DM

*Ngcaweni works in The Presidency. Views contained here are private. His books are available on


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