That time of each year is here when we have celebrations and commemorations relating to the June 16, 1976, Soweto uprising. In one of my previous opinions and contribution to the June 16 discourse, I argued that until something drastic happens for South Africa’s youth, the present and future hold little cause for celebration.
My view is still the same for this 47th anniversary of the 1976 uprising, the day known as Youth Day in South Africa. Departing from the approach in my previous contributions on the matter, however, this year I have taken a conscious decision to reflect on an event before 1976 by looking at the graduation speech by the iconic Onkgopotse Tiro at the University of the North (now the University of Limpopo) on 29 April 1972.
Tiro started his speech by borrowing from Prime Minister BJ Vorster, who in 1976 was one of the architects of the June 16 killings. Addressing the Afrikaanse Studentebond (ASB) congress in June 1971, Vorster said “no black man has landed in trouble for fighting for what is legally his.”
Interestingly, Tiro knew that what Vorster — who was also a passionate Afrikaner Nationalist — was saying was just mere propaganda and indoctrinating the white students he was addressing into believing that black people were troublemakers and their fight was unjustified.
“He (Vorster) continued the apartheid policies of arch-ideologist Hendrik Verwoerd, his predecessor, curtailing the rights of blacks and implementing the homeland policies, influx control, forced removals and the separation of the races in every sphere of life,” reports South African History Online.
Further, SA History Online notes that “John Vorster was a hardline defender of apartheid, first as minister of justice, and later as prime minister. As justice minister, he crushed resistance to apartheid and created a legal infrastructure to outlaw all resistance to apartheid. As prime minister, he developed crucial institutions that made apartheid a reality. He took Verwoerd’s blueprint and even added to it, developing policies that addressed segregation in every sphere, the homelands, state security, labour, job reservation, influx control, group areas and segregated education, among others.”
Yet, Tiro, with his tongue in cheek, used Vorster’s speech as his launching pad. There can of course never be a historical account of the June 16 mass killings by the apartheid regime without mentioning John Voster. Police officers like Petrus Meintjes, a sergeant from John Vorster Square police station, did not hesitate to kill using his R1, “the assault rifle capable of firing 650 rounds a minute that apartheid prime minister Hendrik Verwoerd had officially welcomed into South Africa’s armed forces a decade earlier.”
I am indebted to Tiro for using excerpts of his speech in this piece on the 2023 June 16 commemoration. But why do I find the Tiro speech to resonate with the June 16 commemoration over and above many of the other speeches?
I must declare that it is not because Onkgopotse was an alumni of the University of Limpopo, with which I am associated. It is because the speech, read and understood in context, somehow predicted the lackadaisical attitudes of the current leadership and government in addressing issues and challenges affecting South African children and youths.
In the second paragraph of his speech, Tiro made reference to one RD Brinsmead, an American lay preacher who is quoted as saying “he who withholds the truth or debars men from motives of its expediency, is either a coward, a criminal or both.”
In Tiro’s world, “truth” means “practical reality”. The practical reality as we celebrate 16 June 2023 is that South African basic education is still reeling from the influence of Bantu Education. Even post-1994 black learners in this much-celebrated constitutional democracy still have to battle the ills of apartheid, including having to carry the burden of learning Afrikaans up until grade 12.
According to a Mail and Guardian article published 0n 14 June, 2013, at least the 1976 pupils had the fortitude to speak truth to power, for instance when it comes to being forced to do key subjects in Afrikaans, by holding placards that read: “Down with Afrikaans” and “If we must do Afrikaans, Vorster must do Zulu.”
We must stop lying to ourselves and the future generation that there will be a time when learning Afrikaans or any other language as a subject in school is a matter of choice. Some of our leaders, even those who suffered the dehumanising treatment of 1976, seem to be content with the status quo in basic education.
According to the Financial Mail, lying politicians are a product of society’s devaluing of truth. Every year during the June 16 commemoration, our leaders give us hope that things will change for South African children, in particular the African learners and students who continue to be disadvantaged in several facets of life. The reality is that these are all lies and empty promises. Others will, like Donald Trump, lie “more shamelessly and copiously” than any other leaders before them.
A thesis by Matthew Gallo presented at Fordham University titled Bantu Education, and Its Living Educational and Socioeconomic Legacy in Apartheid and Post-Apartheid South Africa notes that “the Republic of South Africa still reels from its past apartheid legacy, especially in its education sector. One famous apartheid policy was Bantu Education, which legally restricted the delivery of educational services to black South Africans during apartheid. Because of Bantu Education and its lasting legacy in South Africa, many black South Africans have historically and continue to be denied access to quality education, depriving them of employment and other socioeconomic opportunities.”
So, what is there to celebrate if you are a youth in South Africa? Those that unscrupulously would like to defend their inefficiencies are quick to argue that apartheid was in de facto existence for more than a hundred years and that we have been in a democracy for less than 30 years. Such a defensive statement is laughable as it perpetuates a sorry excuse of blaming apartheid even for things that could have been changed 25 years ago.
To borrow and bend from Gallo, the sad and unforgettable apartheid experience “does not justify the several accounted and unaccounted incidents of South African youth falling into toilets and drowning in faeces”. Apartheid cannot be used ad nauseam to avoid accounting for other pressing issues which cannot be blamed on Verwoerd, Vorster, FW de Klerk, and the like.
Why is the South African government not effectively combatting these blatant human rights violations in its education sector? Is it because of a lack of funding, corruption, the continued legacy of apartheid, or all of the above? Why does it appear to be difficult for our leaders to find feasible solutions to solve these problems?
I will tell you why: Not many of our leaders are prepared to discharge their responsibilities in good faith be accountable for their actions, and act in the best interests of the youths and learners in South Africa.
We know of case law where school governing bodies of 29 public schools in the province of Limpopo and others had to seek the intervention and relief of the courts to force the minister of basic education to provide textbooks to learners from disadvantaged communities; where the national and Western Cape education authorities had to be directed by the court to reconsider the decision to stop the funding of undocumented children resulting in their exclusion from school; a case where five-year-old Michael Komape fell to his death through a dilapidated pit latrine at a public school, which the state failed to eradicate and continues to so fail.
I can go on and on but will stop here because I believe that the point is made.
The same way that in theory, Bantu Education gave our parents a say in our education, but in practice the opposite was true, post-apartheid South Africa has given so much hope that the future of the African child matters, but in practice the opposite is true.
Some, for political expediency, would rather not shake the hornets’ nest. Others go to these June 16 rallies hiding the truth behind their backs and lying to the oblivious members of the public. Such leaders must be called out as either cowards, criminals, or both for failing to advance to completion the struggle of 1976 as it relates to the education of African children and their general well-being.
Forbes magazine carries an interesting article about 12 signs of cowardly leadership. Among the listed signs is that such leaders evade hard choices and are quick to make all the excuses such as “this isn’t the right time.”
When, for instance, will it ever be the right time to deal with issues lingering from the 1976 uprising? Another sign, which is surely evidenced in almost every June 16 speech, is of leaders who are “not authentic”. Come the day and the hour of June 16, we will experience some phoney who will, in the words of the Forbes article, “say what they don’t believe, sugarcoating the truth so people hear what they want. While these words may appeal to their aspirations, they’re really adopted for appearances.”
Do we still have noble men and women, leaders and public interest advocates, who will stand out and publicly declare that South Africa has failed the student cohort and youth of 1976? Do we have gallant leaders like Tiro who can on June 16 acknowledge and act in accordance with the appreciation that the challenge to our youths, in particular every black child in this country, lies in the fact that the guilt of all wrongful actions in South Africa rests on all leaders who do not actively dissociate themselves from and work for the eradication of all relics of apartheid?
Towards the end of his graduation speech, Onkgopotse Tiro boldly said: “Our so-called leaders have become the bolts of the same machine which is crushing us as a nation.”
This was an interesting observation then and it is still an interesting one now, and equally applicable to our current leaders. The socioeconomic standing of African youths, children, learners and students continues to experience a big crushing. The more things change the more they remain the same.
If you do not believe me, wait to hear the June 16 speeches and promises from our leaders or different political organisations. You are at most going to hear previews of their 2024 election manifestoes, some that we know will turn out to be empty promises and lies. DM