‘Quality education today is the best tribute you could give us’ – 1976 survivors

The Hector Pietersen memorial in Soweto on Youth Day, 16 June 2020. Picture: Neil McCartney

Survivors and leaders of the 1976 uprising have said that the best way to honour those who led the uprisings is by ensuring the children of today have access to quality education

Former 1976 student activists and members of the the 1970s student leadership have said quality education is the best gift that could be given to the current generation, as tribute to the struggle against Bantu Education.

In a speech delivered via Zoom to the Azanian People’s Organisation Dialogue, former Naledi High School Soweto student, Oupa Ngwenya, related the state of the country in 1976 and the impact of the June 1976 uprising.

He said the action was successfully planned, led, and executed by the students and there was “not a word leaked”.

“Surprise, on the part of the system was evidently felt. It was least expected that the government would meet the students with such brute force. And the rest of the country rose in unison to make the days of oppression count down to zero,” Ngwenya said.

South Africa was never the same. World bodies like the UN could no longer turn a deaf ear or eye. After years of SA being on the UN agenda, Apartheid was declared a crime against humanity.

“The exiled movements, ANC and PAC, were invigorated with people of all ages swelling the ranks of the liberation movements, with students as the catalyst. The democracy that SA enjoys today, with all its pitfalls, would not have been possible without that class of June 16, 1976,” Ngwenya said.

Ngwenya said nothing in life occurs out of its own volition.

“The world will not get better, if we just let it be. There is need for human agency, relying on wishes to gallop our fortunes as they please, with us standing by to watch, we would be waiting in vain. To do so we would be living our lives without purpose.

“For the world to change, it must feel the effects of our presence when we are born into it. It must also feel our absence when we have exited from this earth. Either way, our presence and absence must be felt so that when gone, survivors must say here are the footprints by which to uphold our legacy,” Ngwenya said.

“Those footprints become a testimony to be remembered by. That testimony will be a mark of our attempts to change the world in our lifetimes.”

He said the old legend that people once argued about how many teeth does a horse have was resolved when they decided to go to the horse’s mouth to count the teeth.

“The story of our lives will always escape if we fail to tell. The same applies to June 16, 1976. It is a story of liberation that rightly saw students take the struggle from the classroom into the streets. Having been there, I am one of the horses among horses. I may not have been a leading and a planning horse, but I was a horse that enjoyed the company of leading and planning horses to be a participant in the know.”

Ngwenya related experiences of the 1976 leaders such as Tsietsi Mashinini and his successor, Khotso Seatlholo,  as well as Mzwakhe Machobane and Titi Mthenjane. The students were sheltered at the house of Titi Mthenjane’s father, Ndabambi Mthenjane, which was dubbed “HQ” by the students.

Titi Mthenjane was one of the Soweto 11 charged along with ten other accused. The first to die in the group was Tsietsi Mashinini who mysteriously died on July 5 1990, while Khotso Seatlholo died in 13 February 2004. Mzwake Machobane was shot dead on the eve of his departure to exile in Bloemfontein.

Ndabambi Mthenjane, who served with Ngwenya in both the Tsietsi Mashinini and Khotso Memorial Committees, died on 28 August 2014.

The 1976 shootings were the second-biggest massacre after the Sharpeville Massacre of March 21, 1960.

“The system had gone mad, murderous, and ruthless. The country was terrorized to silence and inaction. Mere mention of Nelson Mandela’s name was invitation for police attention, harassment, or prison. The ANC and PAC were banned. Leaders were either banned, in prison or exile,” Ngwenya said.

He said the “unstoppable” Black Consciousness (BC) movement had burst into the political scene during that lull.

Steve Biko was one of BC’s most prominent leaders and founding father of the philosophy. Azania, as a proposed name for the liberated country, had become familiar on the lips of many students.

“Still, the oppressive government believed its plans to shape and tune blacks to conform to its designs were on track,” Ngwenya said.

Some of the SASO & BPC leaders were charged in what came to be known as the SASO/BPC Treason Trial. As the trial got off the ground, the government was steaming ahead enforcing Afrikaans as medium of instruction in black schools. That was as good as putting a match to a powder keg.

In a statement to commemorate the day, the 70s Group, a nonpartisan and nonsectarian think tank of former ’70s activists from across the liberation movement, highlighted the significance of the day.

70s Group chairperson, Thoko Mkhwanazi-Xaluva, said the cries of 1976 echoed through time for the equality of education “affirming our common humanity and preparing our children to take their rightful place in a society of equals”.

“The students of 1976 rose with one voice not only to invigorate the national liberation movement to successful breakthroughs, but also in yearning for the kind of an education reflective of the singularity of our country and the oneness of the nation. It must remembered that assurances to our children to be future equal citizens of the world armed with all they need to have meaningful lives should be harvested from an education system that is proven to work today,” Mkhwanazi-Xaluva said.

She said: “The affirmation of belief that we are all human invokes in us a responsibility and accountability to remember that we unavoidably need to create conditions conducive for true humanity to breathe again. The 1976 uprising was not just a call and cry by the children of South Africa to a humane existence, but also for an equal society.”


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