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Time to finally address the demands of the Class of ’76

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Professor Dr Omphemetse S Sibanda is a Professor of Law and the Executive Dean of the Faculty of Management and Law at the University of Limpopo. He holds a Doctor of Laws (in International Economic Law) from North West University, a Master of Laws from Georgetown University Law Centre, US; and an LLB (Hon) and B Juris from the then Vista University, Soweto Campus.

Is it time to revisit the issue of Afrikaans as a mandatory language for black learners at schools? And why not deal seriously with issues of transformation in schools and tertiary institutions, and of curriculum trimming and revitalisation beyond just responding to Covid-19?

 

“It was 10.30 on the morning of June 16, 1976. Six thousand pupils in school uniforms sang, shouted, and waved placards bearing slogans such as ‘Away with Afrikaans,’ ‘Afrikaans is the language of the oppressors,’ and ‘We are fed the crumbs of ignorance with Afrikaans as a poisonous spoon.’”

This is one of the trigger accounts of the 1976 Soweto Uprising as reported by Helena Pohlandt-McCormick in I Saw a Nightmare…: Violence and the Construction of Memory (Soweto, June 16, 1976) published in the 2000 special issue of History and Theory journal under the theme “Not Telling: Secrecy, Lies, and History”. 

There were those who spoke out against the commission’s findings, like Frederick van Zyl Slabbert, leader of the Opposition, who voiced concerns over the contemptuous and suspicious manner in which the Cillié Commission treated the evidence of black witnesses. 

The children were met with iron-fisted brutality. Prime Minister BJ Vorster seemed happy with how the security forces dealt with the protesters. Indeed, the apartheid government responded with unmatched brutality. Vorster had the support of his lieutenants, including the then-minister of education, MC Botha, regarded as one of the leading Broederbonders committed to “Afrikanerise the black majority”. Vorster’s other sidekick was the minister of police, Jimmy Kruger, who was excited at what the apartheid police “accomplished” in response to the Soweto Uprising of 1976 – killing and displacing youths and families.

During the sitting of the National Assembly, Kruger announced plans to appoint the Cillié Commission of Inquiry into the uprising, led by Justice Petrus Malan Cillié, judge-president of the Transvaal Provincial Division of the Supreme Court of South Africa. The Cillié Commission was appointed on 24 June 1976, and the outcome was the Report of the Commission of Inquiry into the Riots at Soweto and Elsewhere from the 16th of June 1976 to the 28th of February 1977, issued in 1981. Disappointingly, as with many of the commissions we have had in South Africa, Cillié was at times shamefully apologetic in condemning the actions of the police; and tried to present a finding that would not upset the apartheid masters. 

There were those who spoke out against the commission’s findings, like Frederick van Zyl Slabbert, leader of the Opposition, who voiced concerns over the contemptuous and suspicious manner in which the Cillié Commission treated the evidence of black witnesses. 

As stated by Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng, the vice-chancellor of the University of Cape Town (UCT), in her delivery of the Tsietsi Donald Mashinini Memorial Lecture at Morris Isaacson High School in Soweto on 15 June 2019 to commemorate Youth Day, “[The 1976 learners] were not just resisting being taught in the language of the oppressor; they also understood that this step would limit their ability to achieve academically.”

Celebrating the 44th anniversary of the Soweto Uprising as a reflection on an unfinished story

On Tuesday 16 June 2020 South Africa will commemorate the 44th anniversary of the Soweto Uprising. It was the day our youth took a decisive step to be free from the coercion to learn lessons in Afrikaans, imposed pursuant to the Afrikaans Medium Decree of 1974, while their fellow white pupils could choose which language to learn between Afrikaans and English in a 50-50 mix. Yet, and I stand to be corrected, the 1976 Soweto Uprising is one of South Africa’s unfinished struggles on many fronts.  

This year, June 16, known as Youth Day, is going to be celebrated differently amid Covid-19. The usual pomp and ceremony of the event will be missed. Perhaps this is a blessing in disguise to allow a pressing of the reset button for a proper commemoration of the uprising. I expressed a view in the Sowetan Sunday World (“We failed the class of ’76”) that the June 16 movement lost its way when South Africa transitioned from the apartheid era to the constitutional democracy of the ANC-led government. And that, “[w]hat now stands out as a true epitome of the historic struggle is the famous picture taken by Sam Nzima of Mbuyisa Makhubu carrying the limp body of Hector Pieterson”.

Our preoccupation was on reconciliation and building the rainbow nation, yet we could not reconcile ourselves as a society that there was an urgent and overdue national imperative to correct the injustices that were directed at black public schools over decades. 

Earlier I used the word “imposed” in reference to the issue of Afrikaans as a language of instruction during the Bantu Education era. It is because no consultation took place when the decision was made to “enforce” Afrikaans in black schools. It is reported that when asked about consultation, the deputy minister of Bantu Education, Punt Janson, said: “No, I have not consulted the African people on the language issue and I’m not going to. An African might find that ‘the big boss’ only spoke Afrikaans or only spoke English. It would be to his advantage to know both languages.” 

The ignorance and arrogance of the ruling National Party was clear from the following rhetorical questions asked by Jimmy Kruger before the National Assembly: “Why do they walk with upraised fists? Surely this is the sign of the Communist Party. I do not want to accuse them of being Communists, but where does this walking with upraised fist come from? Why do they walk through the streets shouting the word ‘power’? Where do these things among the young people come from?”

So patronising was Kruger that he never thought a black person could even know how to light a fire: “One must know how to set something alight if one wants to set fire to a building or if one wants to set fire to a tractor. One must know something about those things,” said Kruger. In trying to negatively portray blacks, the rhetorical questions by Kruger demonstrated his level of imbecility and ignorance.

The best-fitting tribute to sacrifices youths made in 1976

The question previously asked, which I would repeat as we celebrate the 44th commemoration of the 1976 Soweto Uprising, is: “Have we done justice to the legacy of the class of 1976?”

In his 2019 article in Daily Maverick, Busani Ngcaweni argued that “[t]here 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”. 

From the perspective of our school environment, as it currently stands, the Soweto Uprising did not receive the traction it deserves – even under the successor ANC-led government. Much still needs to be done, including commemorating the Soweto Uprising differently. How about we revisit the issue of Afrikaans as a mandatory language for black learners at schools? And why not deal seriously with issues of transformation in schools and tertiary institutions, and of curriculum trimming and revitalisation beyond just responding to Covid-19?

Our preoccupation was on reconciliation and building the rainbow nation, yet we could not reconcile ourselves as a society that there was an urgent and overdue national imperative to correct the injustices that were directed at black public schools over decades. 

Afrikaans remains a mandatory language for black children at public schools. They never had a choice not to take Afrikaans as a subject more than 44 years ago and even now, more than 25 years since the dawn of democracy under the ANC-led government. Why are black non-Afrikaans speaking learners still forced to take and pass Afrikaans Additional Language? Is our Department of Basic Education (DBE) so unimaginative and retrogressive that it does not fathom a school curriculum wherein learners have a choice of only one language as part of the curriculum complement?  

It is disappointing that the transformation happening at our higher education institutions does not filter down to public schools. It would appear to a distant observer that the outcomes of the Fees Must Fall protests have largely been inconsequential at the school level.

As one person said, “Afrikaans won’t die because we give students the choice to study it or not, but it sure as hell will if we continue to force it upon students. Have we learned nothing from the past?” 

School governing bodies (SGBs), even those at blacks-only schools, seem to be in deep sleep and hamstrung to use their powers of influencing the DBE’s policy on subject “packaging”.  

Section 29 of South Africa’s Constitution of 1996 states that: “Everyone has the right to receive education in the official language or languages of their choice in public educational institutions where that education is reasonably practicable.” True, it may for now not be practicable for our students to choose without restrictions from any of the 11 official languages in South Africa. It is, however, practicable for the learners not to choose either English or Afrikaans (or not to be “forced” to do either Afrikaans or English) as a language as part of the school subjects’ composition.

It is disappointing that the transformation happening at our higher education institutions does not filter down to public schools. It would appear to a distant observer that the outcomes of the Fees Must Fall protests have largely been inconsequential at the school level.

Addressing the opposition to the University of Stellenbosch English Language Policy of 2016, the Constitutional Court in Gelyke Kanse and Others v Chairperson of the Senate of the University of Stellenbosch and Others [2019] ZACC 38 stated that “the 2014 policy [which held Afrikaans as the primary language] added exclusionary hurdles to higher education, particularly for black South Africans”. The appellant in this case argued that the practical effect of the new Stellenbosch English Language Policy was that “while undergraduate classes are still generally offered in Afrikaans, Afrikaans has lost its position of primacy” and “could well destabilise and eventually topple it”.

Justice Edwin Cameron, delivering the majority judgment, pointed out that “the uneasy truth is[…] that the primacy of Afrikaans under the 2014 Language Policy created an exclusionary hurdle for specifically black students studying at Stellenbosch” (par:28). Similarly, I always feel excluded when attending parents’ meetings at schools that are Afrikaans-speaking dominated, and my son would be frustrated at having to do his Afrikaans task in Grade 9 when he does not comprehend it. 

In the context of the missed opportunity to remedy the language discriminatory practices the Class of ’76 died for, I found instructive to the DBE an observation by Justice Cameron from the Gelyke Kanse (Equal Chances) case, which is considered by the minister of basic education going forward, to deal with the issue of Afrikaans as a mandatory school subject that there was a “determinative motivation for introducing the 2016 Language Policy” by the university in order “to facilitate equitable access to its campus and to its teaching and learning opportunities by black students who are not conversant in Afrikaans”(par:36). 

The time is overdue to have an open and frank conversation about the state of education in South Africa, which is to be followed with the articulation of a number of things including the rationalising of the content of the Curriculum Assessment Policy Statement (CAPS).  Several of our school subjects need urgent trimming and reorganisation.

Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng, who agreed with the judgment of Justice Cameron in the Gelyke Kanse case, noted what the Constitutional Court said in AfriForum v University of the Free State [2017]: “…It would be unreasonable to wittingly or inadvertently allow some of our people to have unimpeded access to education and success at the expense of others as a direct consequence of a blind pursuit of the enjoyment of the right to education in a language of choice. This, in circumstances where all could properly be educated in one common language.” (par:56.)

The chief justice warned that the issue of Afrikaans and access must be “addressed with due sensitivity to the reality that students, desirous of being instructed in Afrikaans…”. Making Afrikaans an optional school subject instead of it being mandatory fully addresses the sensitivity of the matter.

With regard to the currently overburdened school curriculum and curriculum transformation suggested in the Draft Basic Education Recovery Plan for Post Covid-19 Lockdown (Education Recovery Plan) of the DBE, this presents a perfect opportunity to turn things around to the benefit of all our children at schools. The plan calls for curriculum deconstruction that conceptually includes curriculum trimming, curriculum reorganisation and accelerated learning programmes. The time is overdue to have an open and frank conversation about the state of education in South Africa, which is to be followed with the articulation of a number of things including the rationalising of the content of the Curriculum Assessment Policy Statement (CAPS).  Several of our school subjects need urgent trimming and reorganisation.

For example, the history taught at Parklands College in Cape Town with activities requiring Grade 7 pupils to make a poster advertising a slave auction in the 1800s, shows both the macro and micro-aggressions at our schools. This lesson activity was a racist and insensitive trivialisation of the plight of blacks subjected to slavery. If this is how slavery and colonisation are taught in our schools, then horrific violence is perpetrated against our learners unchecked, contrary to the values and principles the Constitution calls upon us to embrace.

Another concern, for example, is how human evolution is taught in the Life Sciences curriculum. In their article titled “Human Evolution in the South African Curriculum” Sutherland and L’Abbé reported research findings that “the evolution curriculum and the evolution content in textbooks often achieve the opposite of what is desired: that is, they perpetuate misconceptions and unscientific ideas about evolution by using improper and misleading terminology and by reporting inaccurate information”.

We can do better

In response to my question. “Have we done justice to the memory and legacy of the Class of 1976?”, the answer is a big NO. Justice cannot be done if we are not going to decisively deal with alleged racism in Trinity House Randpark Ridge, Wynberg Girls High, Bishops Diocesan College, Herschel Girls School, Clarendon High School for Girls and many other schools.

Justice will be done if our education authorities can grow the honest political will and constitutional sensitivity to implement transformation at our schools. We can start by implementing without excuses a myriad judgments that have been reported and written about routinely on this platform, including, but not limited to: delivery of textbooks to schools, improving school infrastructure; resuming the school feeding scheme amid Covid-19; providing permanent solutions to sanitation at schools; providing sustainable assistance to our learners with disabilities amid Covid-19 and beyond; addressing youth unemployment and properly preparing school leavers for the professions and employment; thinking about the future of our schools whose vulnerabilities have been exposed by Covid-19 and demands of the digital age; and addressing school admission policies, which have been exposed in a recent empirical study by Dr GM Sibanda at the University of Pretoria (and as confirmed by relevant stakeholders – principals, SGBs, the country’s leading SGB federations, the government department representatives, and parents – to be an impediment to exercising the right of access to basic education in public primary schools along racial lines).

And importantly, doing good by the Class of ’76 by fostering a sense of pride and ownership among education stakeholders – government, school and tertiary institutions managers, learners and students – for everyone to know that the future of our education sector depends on us working together and not against each other. DM

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