16 June 1976 changed the course of our history and yet, I see that it is treated by many at my university as just another public holiday, a day for the taverns. What does it mean to get drunk and treat this like just another public holiday? Surely this is not what our freedom is about, and certainly not what the youth of 1976 fought for?
I was born in a village called Basani. Basani is located in the Mopani district in Limpopo. Growing up in there was delightful mixture of sociocultural activities, especially on Youth day. Where I come from, Youth Day is unique and diverse and everyone has his, her or their own way of celebrating the brave youth of our country.
In the village of Basani, June 16 means coming together to proudly commemorate the valiant youth who gave their lives fighting for a better future. I recall going to church to celebrate Youth Day, some dressed up in their finest, others wore neatly washed and pressed church uniforms. While some praised the Lord, other’s praised the bartender; taverns would be packed on Youth Day, with young and old ordering round after round. Regardless of where I spent them, I loved the occasion of Youth Day. But now I look back and see just how naive I was.
It’s really those who praise the bottle on Youth Day who concern me the most. What does it mean to get drunk and treat this like just another public holiday? Surely this is not what our freedom is about, and certainly not what the youth of 1976 fought for?
16 June 1976 changed the course of our history. Thousands of schoolchildren in Soweto took to the streets to protest against the compulsory use of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction from what was then Standard 5 (now Grade 7). It was not only learners but also teachers and principals who opposed the ruling on Afrikaans. For many teachers Afrikaans was a third language, and thus they were ill-equipped to teach in the proposed language. As many as 20,000 students took part in the protests, and they were met with fierce police brutality. Police opened fire on the protesters who gathered to march, thousands were wounded and the official number of deaths is 176, although the number is often said to be as high as 700. Images of the riots spread all over the world, shocking millions. The iconic photograph of Hector Pieterson, captured by the late photojournalist Sam Nzima, caused outrage and brought to light the brutality of the Apartheid state.
Taking all this into consideration, is drinking is an inadequate way to commemorate those who died for us? Is this what black culture and our history has come to? When are we going to wake up and realise we are drifting away from the true purpose of the day. It pains me to see how we have forgotten the agenda of the youth who fought for us, we have changed this day and made it about something entirely different from what it is really about. Is this what the South African struggle has come to? I’m increasingly frustrated by the manner in which the day is being celebrated. Firstly, because it seems to have lost its meaning to most. Secondly, because it has been hijacked by political narratives detached from its core spirit.
When I became a student at the University of Venda I began to realise just how common it is to ‘celebrate’ Youth Day at the closest bar. “I commemorate that day by drinking alcohol at the student bar with others”, one student said when I asked them how they will be spending the special day. “I usually go to church where we host conferences as a way of celebrating 16 June with other youth”, another said. “I buy booze and celebrate”, echoed another. This seems to be a popular narrative. It is really embarrassing to hear students think and act this way.
To make matters worse, the day is also hijacked for political agendas.
In Thohoyandou, political parties host gatherings where guest speakers step onto their soap boxes and represent the ideology of certain political parties, rather than representing young leaders of our nation. They use this important day to spread their political agenda, rather than educating people about the struggle, about the Soweto riots, about the true meaning of this day.
Why can’t thousands of youth gather across the country and wear school uniforms, for instance, instead of political party t-shirts?
As for me, I will not be spending Youth Day in a tavern or a church, but teaching young people in the area about the events that led to the uprising of 1976. I believe this will give them a clear understanding of the day and will build a culture between my generation and the next where we share stories carried down about the history our forefathers spilt their blood for.