June 16th 1976: What does it mean today?

Youth making sense of decades of history

The broad sweep of the unfolding South African story has many violent turning points. It is only with pain that we learn and move forward. Of all of these moments in history June 16th 1976 has a special place in the hearts of those who were there. But as the years roll by and new challenges face our fragile democracy, what does the turmoil on that winter day in Soweto signal to the new generation? The Journalist mentors a group of young writers called the Free State Circle. This is their response to our question.

In South Africa June is youth month. It is a time to remember. But when we look at our historic selves, we often don’t see things too clearly.

Ace Moloi, a graduate from the University of the Free State (UFS), takes the rose tint out of our gaze, forcing us to be more honest. He writes:

“Surely they were not perfect. They had their own fears, insecurities and demons to confront. Some of them could have been delinquents. In their generation there could have been teenage mothers and fathers just as there possibly were the motherless and fatherless. Not all of them went on to further their studies. Today some of them are behind some of our socio-economic ills. They were after all a generation of humans.

“However, they managed to define what they stood for beyond their personal imperfections and preferences. Fear of death, the sting of hunger, episodes of deprivation and the vanity of youth could not cripple their willingness to be heard. I admire them for their collective heroism and clarity of purpose. As we all wake up every day to the brutality of drug abuse, teenage pregnancy, unemployment, absent fathers and economic exclusions, may we unite with the same clarity of purpose and declare that our collective will is stronger than our ills.”

Moloi, a budding young writer, is currently working at the Johannesburg Roads Agency (SOC) Ltd as Trainee: Marketing and Communications.

Fighting for the Same Things

Another disarmingly honest reflection comes from Palesa Morei, a third year BA Media and Journalism student at the UFS where she is the editor of the campus newspaper, IRAWA Post. She says:

“I’m struggling to write because I don’t know what it is anymore. Yes we remember the youth that made a difference back then. However, this year it seemed like what the Youth of 1976 didn’t do anything as we keep fighting for the same things. But now I think the youth is constantly fighting to break boundaries.”

Lerato Molisana, a B Sc Mathematical Statistics student at the UFS who has been active in student media since 2012, when she joined the campus newspaper IRAWA Post as a journalist, has this to say:

“What the youth of 1976 did validates my audacity to dare to believe that my voice as a young person, is powerful. All they had was the naivety of youth, a burning urge to free themselves from the shackles of a system that didn’t recognise their intelligence and humanity, yet they managed to shape history. I’m reminded of this on days when I get overwhelmed with the responsibility on my shoulders to be a force of good in the world. They rebelled against a system that was monolithic and they came out victorious because they believed they had equal if not more power collectively to beat it.

“My generation is obsessed with mapping things out on paper and we forget that real power lies in the connections and appeals we make to like-minded people’s hearts to join movements that are genuine in bringing justice to those who are less privileged than us. We are privileged. I am privileged in that I know the onus to bring justice and to make a difference is on me, like the youth of 1976. True privilege is recognising the power you have and using it to serve humanity. The youth of 1976 demonstrated this with no weapons or arms, only with the knowledge that their determination to stand up for their rights was powerful.”

Namesakes Who Died In Custody

Ntando P Z Mbata who holds a Masters degree in History says she did some serious reflection on the meaning of the Soweto uprisings while visiting a museum in Pretoria one day en route to a meeting with the Minister of Arts and Culture. The problem with the powerful tales of our past is that they are often relegated to spaces far removed from our daily lives.

“I came across names of people who died in police custody. Two names got my attention, that of Dumisani Mbatha (16) who died on 25/09/1976 and Linda Dlodlo who died on 22/09/1982.”

Just names and dates but the story behind the bare official record is profound and sad. We relate to the past if we can find our own connections there.

“My mother’s maiden surname is Dlodlo. The only other Dlodlo in history I know of is Ayanda Dlodlo who left as a young girl and was terribly abused. I learned about Ayanda Dlodlo when I did my Masters Mini-thesis ‘Historical Perspective on Women as victims of human rights violations and the TRC of SA (1996-1998)’. Basically she was 17 years old when she skipped the country to join MK in Angola in 1980. She was one of the few women who came before the TRC to relate how she was abused sexually when she was in exile. She remarked; ‘Some of us were in trenches when we were young; we even lost our virginity there’. During her hearing, she expressed that she was given contraceptives on her arrival in exile and she didn’t ask questions because she thoughts that’s what was expected of everyone.

“Dlodlo is a Nguni surname. Most Dlodlo people are found in Zimbabwe. It is very difficult to trace their origin as little history is documented on this surname. Even when I read more on Zulu literature, I rarely come across it.”

Recording Our History

The scantiness of black history that Ntando P Z Mbata — Heritage Co-ordinator at the Department of Sports, Arts, Culture and Recreation in the Free State – epxeriences is the collective problem we are addressing here.

“I took interest in Dumisani because he is a Mbatha like me. But more than anything, because he died in 1976 and this means he may have been a part of the Soweto uprisings. He was 16 years old and reason for death was that he was sick. Now you should notice a pattern here as most people who died in police custody were said to have either committed suicide or died of odd sicknesses, etc. Police often refused to take responsibility for deaths in custody. His case is one of many.

“There isn’t enough representation of all those who took part on this historic day and those who continued with the fight soon after. Remember the scores of young people who went abroad to either take up arms or study; Castings Ndlovu and the number of students who are not known to history books. We need to look at the fact that resistance against apartheid by the youth didn’t start in 1976. It wasn’t only in Soweto and more importantly we need to acknowledge the number of young people who took part (whether they were killed or still live to tell their story today) and how this bravery went further to change the course of history.”

Mbatha has worked with the NGO IndoniSA as the Free State Champion and has used her expertise as a researcher to present the history of women like Queen Manthatisi. Her current project is documenting the history of Steadville, a township near Emnambithi, through oral history.

Paving the Way

Another member of The Journalist’s Free State Circle, graduate Thapelo Mokoatsi, recently completed his Africa Studies Masters’ research. He says:

“I was born in the late 80s but June 16 1976 became part of my consciousness before I could even understand what it is. They were fighting for the generation that will come after them so that it may take the baton and search for its generational consciousness and pave a way for the next generation to come.

“When I ask why and how it happened, I realise how fortunate I am to live in a country full of young people who loved me and yearned for what is best for me. People take June 16 lightly and resort to having fun. Yes there is nothing wrong with that but what I have picked up especially from my housemates in the student house I am residing in is that this day means nothing. Simply because some of them were born between 92 and 96, they don’t get the gist of it. I may be wrong. It is just an ordinary day. I don’t blame them though.

“So to them, they are only interested in who, what and where of the story (who being Hector Peterson and Soweto being the place where it all happened. Soweto uprising (commemoration) being the holiday they will later enjoy this month. They don’t show an interest in why it happened and how it happened.”

Pushed for what he deemed appropriate activity for June 16th Thapelo responds:

“Normally I would watch TV and listen to the keynote address made by the president (from Mbeki to Zuma). But one special thing happened in June 16th 2013. Me and close varsity pals, including our Linda Fekisi, we met here at UFS (University of the Free State) and laid out a foundation of our NPO (still not yet functional) called Bevoi Social Movement. Its aim is to write the community history of small towns in the Free State, starting with Hoopstad. But I decided to write my PhD on Hoopstad. Bevoi (bev-wa) it stands for Bird’s Eye View (bev) and Organic Intellectuals (oi). That’s how we wanted to look at the self. Our vision is to create organic intellectuals, inspired by Italian Marxist, Antonio Gramsci. The dream is still alive.”

Mokoatsi has done his Masters research on the topic: “Caught Between a Ballot and a Bullet: Case-study of Post-colonial Politics of Guinea and Guinea-Bissau”.

Older People Hush Us

In addition to being a Bevoi Founder, Linda Fekisi is a BA Media Studies and Journalism honours graduate from the UFS and is currently an intern at The Journalist. She says:

“I remember, for the longest time believing that our generation was lost to a common cause. This stemmed from being subjected to the ‘do not question anything and appreciate what you have’ speech that older people tend to hush us with when we ask why things are the way they are.

“Twenty-one years into democracy and nearly four decades since the uprising, I feel like there is hope for our generation. The euphoria of freedom, a rainbow nation and conquering apartheid is moving away from blindly shaping our perceptions of South Africa. We are aware now more than ever that we are not yet uhuru. The enemy of present day June 16th is not white men firing bullets at children in school uniforms. The bullets that our youth is dodging are those of unemployment, poverty increasing poverty, an unbalanced economy as well as the lack of a black voices and transformation in academia.

“To me this day means commemorating the class of ‘76 by being conscious of the baton we hold against colonisation and the constant struggle to find our voice as Africans.”

Rhodes Must Fall Campaign

Anathi Nyadu, a third year journalism student at the UFS who writes for Y-not Culture, Fundza Literacy Trust and various other online platforms, says:

“The generation of ’76 discovered their mission and set out to fulfill it. Of course, there were some who betrayed the mission! What about us, i.e. the present day youth? Have we discovered what our mission in this world is? At first glance, my generation is likely to be dismissed as misguided, unthinking, and, at worst, performers. These are words that were used to describe the Rhodes Must Fall Campaign. I mention the RMF campaign because, I believe, it has all the characteristics of a youth that has finally discovered its mission. No, not a mission to destroy, but a mission that is an attempt at redressing injustices of the past. But, no, that’s not how people choose to see it. Some said there was no need for colonial statues to fall and concocted all sorts of explanations as to why this was so. Some said the youth was hell-bent on destroying instead of building.

“But, there is one thing that particularly stood out for me… The resilience, the braveness and the fact that the RMF campaign never lost focus even amidst the criticism. It simply means one thing; they knew their mission. They knew that if this generation didn’t do anything about it – then they would have betrayed the mission. I think, this was a thought that the ’76 youth had too as they took to the streets to oppose an education system that disadvantaged the black child. The ’76 generation did not betray their mission. However, there’s still a lot of work to be done by our generation. The RMF campaign was just the beginning. More is yet come. The youth of our generation will also be remembered as gallant, brave soldiers who championed the battle against all forms of injustices. Aluta continua!”

There is probably no difference between this generation and the Class of ’76. But one of the things that has changed is the move from merely responding to daily onslaughts on our human rights to the relative luxury of reflection and redressing the deeper ills in society.