FOURTY years ago a brave generation took a stand to look into the very eyes of the beast. Reflected in the beast’s demonic stare was a horror picture of a future that any non-conforming generation would hate to inherit. June 16, 1976 was a measure of such a generation.
This was the striking hour for the turning point in the history of a people. Equally, atrocities that prop up tyrants to entrench their power were at most vicious point.
To avoid becoming history, the Nationalist Party (NP) government, did as oppressors often do. For the students, not only was this a moment to witness history being made, but also, to become the invigorating part for its’ re-writing. It was a case of do or die. Common sense, for an unjust system to relinquish power peacefully, seldom prevails. The stage for confrontation typified that of the Biblical David and Goliath. The June 16, 1976 generation embodied the fighting spirit of David.
Called upon to wrestle the brute force of a state ready to kill, in order to stay alive, this generation was fully aware that it was not the first on the stage of history to encounter the monster. There were well meaning and conscientious fighters before it that were callously lost along the way.
Student leader at the University of Zululand, Mthuli ka Shezi was pushed in front of a moving train at Germiston station for coming to the defence of African women being drenched with water by a white station cleaner in 1972.
Another student leader from the University of the North (now University of Limpopo) Onkgopotse Tiro was not only expelled for his critique of Bantu Education Act of 1953. He was assassinated by a parcel bomb while exiled in Botswana on February 1, 1974.
By June 16 oppressors had gone mad and bereft of any capacity to listen. Preoccupied with the decline of Afrikaans language amongst Africans, the NP government forged ahead with its Afrikaans Medium Decree of 1974 forcing all black schools to use Afrikaans and English in a 50-50 mix as languages of instruction.
Attempts by the discredited Urban Bantu Council (UBC) to meet with Regional Director of Education Ackerman, were rebuffed. According to UBC’s Leonard Mosala school boards, school committees, community organisations and delegation after delegation sent to speak to the imposition of Afrikaans in black schools came to nought.
Mosala’s observation to the simmering situation was very bleak: “We had seen what happened in Sharpeville. We were aware of the mood of students in Soweto. And at this point in time the students appeared to be taking matters into their hands because their parents had failed to resolve their problem which was learning.”
Mosala’s feared tragic prospects of history repeating itself fell on deaf ears. In his refusal to consult with blacks the Deputy Minister of Education at the time Punt Janson was unashamedly blunt: “No, I have not consulted them and I am not going to consult them. I have consulted the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa.”
Janson seemed oblivious he was lighting a match to a flammable situation that puts fire to the apartheid edifice. It was the beginning of the end but not without casualties.
Justice Bizana, from the North West was killed and his body placed on a heap of explosives for his next of kin to pick up the pieces. Even in his last days acclaimed ANC freedom fighter Solomon Mahlangu was denied a washing rag to dry his body from a shower while still detained at police headquarters John Voster Square.
Atrocities meted to black people were logical in terms of the initial cruelty certifying them as not worthy of being consulted. Students’ questions raised were responded to with live ammunition. Hector Pietersen fell. So did Hastings Ndlovu as is known and unknown countless martyred on that day.
A simple act of human compassion by Mbuyiseni Makhubu to pick up mortally wounded Pietersen to Phomolong Clinic for medical attention saw him persecuted to the end of the earth without trace. Some disappeared into thin air while others were thrown in crocodile infested rivers or buried in unmarked graves without trace. In the wake of the uprisings poet Don Mattera responded: “And now, Let grieving willows mark the spot; let nature raise a monument of flowers and trees; lest we forget the foul of the wicked deed.”
Not that it would have made any sense for the oppressor to consult the oppressed on the methods for their continued oppression. Denied consultation sharply drove home the point that issues of dispute between the oppressed and the oppressor camps extended beyond the issue of Afrikaans as the language of education instruction. What drove the brave 1976 generation, to take matters in their hands, was the resolve to recapture the essence of how it would feel like to be free.
Contemplating how best to remember this day journalist and poet Mandla Ndlanzi’s word of advice is worth pondering on: “You may dance everyday but not on this day; let history teach you how to observe this day; by signs of grief, immortalise them.”
Oupa Ngwenya is a corporate strategist, freelance writer and journalist.