In South Africa, today, 16 June, is known as Youth Day, although the reality is, it is actually the anniversary of a very tragic and blood covered day that changed the course of South African history irrevocably.
On 16 June 1976, Soweto exploded in a day that will always be remembered. I was 15 years old at the time, probably the same age as those who started marching into history. However, my own history as a 15 year old was very much different to that of the African school children that took to the streets. At the time I never really understood what it was about, or why this happening, and I am ashamed to say I was probably on the wrong side.
It is not my intention to try unravel the events that led up to the carnage that was to follow, there are many resources that are much more qualified than I am. I can only really look back with hindsight onto where we have come from there, and where we may go from here.
Wikipedia has an interesting page on the events, and so has South Africa.info, that are well worth the read. I can’t help but look at the names of those who dreamt up the grandiose idea of the language policy that is generally considered to be the spark that ignited the flame. I wonder if they woke up on June 17 and realised what they had done? The irony is that at that time I was in Std 7 in what was then known as a “parallel medium” high school myself, and the language policy was heavily biased towards Afrikaans.
The rest is history, and the subsequent actions of the police has been heavily criticised ever since. The iconic image of Hector Pieterson (also spelt Pietersen) by Sam Nzima has become the image that has always remained foremost in the spotlight, and will always be associated with 16 June 1976. I don’t think anybody could have defused the angry mobs that rampaged up and down the streets, their actions being exacerbated by the actions of the police. It was one of those things that just had to play itself out.
It is well worth visiting the Hector Pietersen Museum in Soweto, and to view the courtyard with all those names inscribed on random paving stones. Each one represents a life that was lost, and many cases, not even that name is known.
The view from the museum today does not really compare to what it was like on June 16, I think in many cases the young inexperienced policemen were ill equipped to deal with the mob that they confronted, and the results were devastating on both sides. How many today are walking around with PTSD as a result of 16 June 1976? And how many are laying in paupers graves in Avalon Cemetery?
What did it all achieve? If anything it started us on the road to where we are now. The unrest that was to follow would continue until 1994 brought about the change that was needed in South Africa. Yet, even today the “youth” still sit grappling with issues of unemployment, education, poor service delivery, corruption, nepotism and all permutations inbetween. There is talk that one day South Africa will once again erupt into the horror of riots and mayhem, fingers get pointed and blame gets apportioned, but the difference today is that the government is one that was elected by the majority of the people in the country. Sadly though, that government has let the youth down in favour of their own wallets and cronies. The children that participated in June 16 are all around my age, and I often wonder whether that look back on those events and wish that they had chosen a different route to travel?
It is well worth taking a trip to Soweto and trying to make sense of the events of the day. If possible you should visit Avalon Cemetery and see the June 16 Uprising Memorial , as well as looking up the grave of Hector Pietersen. It is a sobering moment to actually stand in front of his headstone, knowing how much his death contributed to our history.
I expect that today’s youth do not really connect to 16 June 1976, those events are far in the past, and their priorities are very much different to those of the lost generation that participated in it. If anything it is just another public holiday in South Africa, and had it been on a week day would have been celebrated as such. The significance is no longer there, and those who never got this far did not see the results of what happened in 1994 in South Africa when we all stood in the queue to vote.
The strange thing is that even after all these years, education is still in crisis in South Africa. There are still schools that don’t have classrooms, toilets or teachers, there are schools that still don’t have text books, and there are children that still drop out and join the queue of unemployed with a less than basic education. Those that do complete matric still struggle to find jobs, or find that their matric has not prepared them for the working world. Pupils still torch their schools because they feel that something is wrong, and unions still disrupt classes or exams on a whim. Actually, not much has changed if you think about it, all that has really happened is that we move from one crisis to another. Dropping the pass mark and dumbing down the syllabus has not produced people with quality education, but rather is about treating the symptom by denying the disease.
What would the class of 1976 have to say about the schooling of today? I don’t think they would be very impressed at all.
© DRW 2012-2021. Images recreated 25/03/2016