Remembering the students of 1976


By Siyabonga Sesanti

“Give people a poor education and the mind will find out. Revolt is then inevitable”
Es’kia Mphahlele – 1984


On June 16 in 1976, students from all over Soweto marched in protest against, not only the introduction of Afrikaans as the medium of teaching and learning but against inferior education for black people in the form of Bantu Education.

The Bantu Education Act of 1953 under the Apartheid government was introduced not only as a means of disempowering the black community but as means to further repress their development. Under this law, black people were doomed to an education that would not allow them to qualify for meaningful employment. This was a systematic approach of economically disabling black people by the Apartheid government.

Furthermore, this system attempted to cripple Black sense of self and pride, by dictating that they be taught in the language that was used as a tool of oppression.

“If you need to destroy a people you need to destroy their culture because that is the glue that holds them together. When you destroy their culture you destroy their language, you destroy their memory, you destroy their songs and they have no sense history. And a people who have no sense of history have no sense of the present and will most certainly have no sense of the future.” Dr. Simphiwe Sesanti – 2010

Much like all other tyrants, the Apartheid government had a need to seek and destroy all figures and means of revolt. It was for this reason that Professor Es’kia Mphahlele – among others – opposed Bantu Education and was banned from teaching in South Africa in 1952, prompting his exile into Afrika to continue teaching.

“The most potent weapon of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed”.
Bantu Biko – 1978


The Soweto Uprising of 1976 was direct evidence of the liberation of the young minds of black students refusing to be thought for, and choosing rather, to think for themselves.

“It is misleading to conceptualise June 16 as ideologically and historically independent of Biko’s life lessons.” Es’kia Mphahlele – 1998

Bantu Biko’s Black Consciousness Movement was undoubtedly one of the keystones of the 1976 student uprisings that began in Soweto on June 16, 1976, as well as many other significant events that played a major role in South Africa’s revolution. The Black Consciousness Movement taught among other many important lessons that black people were no less than whites. It was these teachings of Afrikan pride that drove young Afrikans to refuse to settle for less in their own land.

For me, as a young man of 19 years of age, the lesson of this day in our history further strengthens the value of Afrikans who refused to be enslaved but unite to initiate the change which they wanted to see.

“The eternal theme of a victim who hollers from the depths of a pit for the tyrant to lower a ladder for him just won’t do. We still have to make the transition in our minds, from the status of bleeding victims to that of the proactive initiator who knows what changes he wants”
Es’kia Mphahlele – 1993


As a youth in present-day South Africa, it is sad to note that first and foremost, many youth today have no real sense of this history beyond the little that is skimmed through in schools. The average young South African knows nothing more than what media soundbytes provide of this momentous event in our history; no more than vague details of the uprising.

The extent of their knowledge of June 16 goes no further than the sad fact of the death of Hector Pieterson. Although the iconic image by Sam Nzima of Hector, who laid lifeless in the arms of Mbuyisa Makhumo, has become a symbol of June 16, his death must be understood in the context of the hundreds of other youth who lost their lives in the widespread state violence that followed. Secondly, while the introduction of Afrikaans as medium of instruction was a major catalyst for the uprising, the main motivation of the uprising was arguably, a struggle against poor education and even poorer educational facilities.

It seems appropriate as we commemorate June 16 that we ask the questions:
-How has the quality of education in Black Schools changed since 1976?

-How many schools in Soweto and other townships have progressed towards the state of former white ‘model C’ schools?

-Why do black families in the townships still – after years of democracy – send their children long distances to attend schools in the suburbs, while those who cannot afford this luxury have to send their children to schools whose facilities have improved little, if at all, since 1994?

I remember wondering, as a 7 year old living in Soweto, why I had to be up so early in the morning to travel to Joburg to go to school when there were schools within walking distance. A year later my family and I moved to Birch Acres, a suburb in Kempton Park. I was told that we moved so I could walk to school. Today I understand why all this was necessary, which is what drives the question of, why Sibongile Primary does not have the same facilities as Birch Acres Primary? Is a good education only meant for those who can afford it?

It seems to me that the strategic plan of Bantu education still reigns. Nevertheless the challenge is for us not to be victims but be activists just like the youth of ’76. They fought and died so that we could find ourselves in a better position than theirs, it is now up to us to continue the struggle in order to ensure that the youth of tomorrow are better off than we are.

Always Affirm Afrika!!

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