June 16, 1976 is firmly etched on the collective consciousness of South Africans. On this day thousands of students gathered at the Isaac Morrison High School in Soweto to protest against the Bantu Education Act and the enforcement of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction. The courage of those students would change the face of the struggle against apartheid forever. The apartheid regime would no longer be able to disguise or explain away its brutality and the world could no longer ignore the reality of what was going on in South Africa.
In the post 1994 South Africa the commemoration of June 16, has been changed to a “celebration” of Youth Day. In official speeches delivered in State functions various dignitaries will mouth platitudes about the youth of ’76. Names of Hector Petersen, Tsietsi Mashinini and others will be evoked as fallen heroes in our country’s struggle for democracy. Yet very little will be said about the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM) and the philosophy of Black Consciousness which inspired those young people to stand up against the might of the apartheid regime.
Despite the attempts to delete the role of the BCM and Black Consciousness from the history of June 16, ironically actions of the apartheid security forces on that fateful day attest to the truth. At the end of that day, apartheid forces had arrested George Wauchope – the Chairman of the Johannesburg Central Branch of the Black Peoples Convention (BPC) and Magauta Molefe – Head Office Administrative Secretary for being agitators of the uprising. By the end of July 1976 a significant number of active members of the BPC in Johannesburg were detained, including BPC President – Hlaku Rachidi and its Secretary General – Thandisizwe Mazibuko.
The youth of this country in their rising against apartheid were saying no to a system that would ensure their inability to participate as equals in South Africa, in particular, and the world in general. They were rejecting, without equivocation a system which aimed to reduce them to “hewers of wood and drawers of water”. Certainly, with the dawn of ‘democracy’ in 1994 many must have thought the dreams of the martyrs of 1976 would at long last be realised and that no young person in South Africa would be subjected to a system that would disadvantage them from participating meaningful in all spheres of South African society as educated and skilled individuals.
Sadly this hope has dwindled to dying embers. Recent research conducted by Stellenbosch University academics found that the South African education system generally produces outcomes that reinforce current patterns of poverty and privilege instead of challenging them. The research found, that in terms of education outcomes “the legacy of apartheid appears to have endured.” The current education system portends a bleak picture for young people of our country. Seventy percent (70%) of the system is characterized by dysfunction and poor national and international achievement scores. Such dysfunction manifests in:
- Poor levels of administrative and academic support from education authorities,
- Low levels of content mastery by teachers
- Just 60% of maths and 53% of science learners being taught by degreed teachers whereas the international average is 87% for maths and 90% for science.
- Backlogs in infrastructure
- High levels of teacher and learner absenteeism
It is therefore no wonder that South Africa ranked 60 out of 63 countries that participated in the 2012 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study. The reality is that the system is failing young people of this country particularly those from poor and working class communities, who are in the main black.
We are forced to ask what is this good story that we have to tell 20 years into democracy? And for whom is this story good?
The students of 1976 fought against a system and its proponents which sought to impede their mental growth and development. While the government of today claims great successes in education and training, the evidence presents a stark contrast to these claims. We see the democratic government ironically creating the same conditions that will see a generation of young people disempowered and academically disadvantaged by its ineptitude, corruption and sheer arrogance!
Sadly 38 years after the Soweto uprising, the young people of this country are no closer to experiencing an education system the youth of ’76 aspired to and so passionately fought for – at the expense of injury and death!
We must never forget the supreme sacrifice of those who lost their lives on that fateful June 16, 1976. We must hold up their sacrifice as a mirror to the ruling elite and the ruling party as it governs our country with such ineptitude, as it destroys the future of the children of our country and with this, our country itself. As a citizenry we must also use the commemoration of the sacrifice made by those young people on June 16, as a mirror to reflect on how, through our own acts or lack thereof, we allow the perpetuation of a situation that sees children from poor and working class communities destined to live a life of poverty and limited opportunities. We must reflect on how we continue to allow those in power to evade taking responsibility and accountability. It is only through mustering the courage shown by those young people in 1976, that we can put South Africa on a course consistent with the dreams and hopes of the Class of 76!