June 16

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June 16 is Youth Day, a public holiday in South Africa. It commemorates the moment in 1976 when young South Africans rose up against Apartheid, first in Soweto, then in Langa in the Cape and then countrywide.

It was the beginning of the end for racist white rule in SA and the dark before the dawn of nonracial democracy in this country.

The story has been told many times, a good example being Pat Hopkins and Helen Grange`s slim-but-informative Rocky Rioter Teargas Show, published in 2001.

Hopkins and Grange write that the “event came to be known as the Soweto Riots, Soweto Uprising, 16 June, the Language Riots and the ‘Children`s War`. It was all of these and none of them. It was not a riot, it was an uprising. The language issue was a symptom not the cause. It was most certainly not a ‘Children`s War: Children were involved, often at the forefront, but many adults gave direction. Reference to children also represents a fundamental misconception about black education under apartheid, where scholars in high school were often aged between 18 and 22 –hardly children. It was also not confined to 16 June 1976, nor was it restricted to Soweto…”

Hopkins and Grange trace the roots of the uprising to the “scramble for Africa“, noting that in 1870 most Africans lived in black chiefdoms. By 1899 none did. Once stripped of their independence, it was a matter of time before their land was also taken. For South African blacks the main vehicle was the 1913 Land Act in concert with the Native Labour Relations Act that tightened controls on black labour and the Mines and Works Act that reserved certain jobs for whites.

              

In the words of one Member of Parliament, it was necessary to tell blacks that South Africa was “a white man`s country; that he was not going to be allowed to buy land there, and if he wanted to be there he had to be of service.” The authors add that what the MP did not say was that the laws were designed to “steal the country and virtually enslave [blacks]: its core purpose was the provision of cheap labour. This was accomplished by allocating 7.3% (later increased to 13%) of the country`s land surface to 80% of the population.”      

Sol Plaatje lamented South Africa had on the morning of 20 June 1913 “by law ceased to be the home of any of her native children whose skins are dyed with pigment that does not conform to the regulation hue.”

        

Governments came and went but all further tightened the vice blacks were in, while casual racism, built into everyday language and practice ensured “natives” were kept well aware of their menial position. The apartheid state put black South Africans in a pressure cooker, every aspect of their lives controlled, and kept the heat up.

The early 1970s were the calm before the storm. The economy was starting to wobble under the weight of the many deferred costs of grand apartheid while blacks were “beginning to stir to the massage of Black Consciousness” (BC) and noted the growing number of decolonised African states in the United Nations.

Pressure was building in the cooker while the metal was fatiguing – not that the cooks cared. The National Party was in the throes of an internecine succession struggle between factions headed by Information minister Connie Mulder and Defence minister PW Botha, with Mulder Prime minister BJ Vorster`s “crown prince”.

A popular canvas on which to demonstrate one`s fitness to rule was the black populace. This time would be no different. In 1972 Andries Treurnicht had been elected chairman of the Broederbond, a secret society dedicated to promoting Afrikaner interests and by the 1970s a bastion of the rightwing – “verkramptes” in Afrikaans.

One of the few powers blacks had was to choose the official language (English or Afrikaans) their children would be taught in after their first three years of mother-tongue education. It had always been a gripe of the verkramptes that school boards invariably chose to educate their children in English. 

A 1955 ruling, not implemented for a lack of funds, decreed children would be taught have their subjects in Afrikaans and half in English. To promote Mulder`s cause, Treurnicht directed the deputy minister charged with “Bantu education” to enforce the rule up to Grade 7 from 1975, and to extend it to Grade 8 in 1976, Grade 9 in 1977, and so forth.

   

Treurnicht became Bantu education deputy minister in 1976 and insisted in the face of parental and school board protest that the policy be implemented. Based on historical experience, Treurnicht may have reckoned that this type of kragdadigheid (“forcefulness”) that showed the black his place, would go down well with the party caucus and give Mulder an edge over the verligte (“enlightened”) Botha. Black complaints interested him not.  

“Most of the protest until April was adult led. That, however, changed in May as the mid-year exams – half of which were to be written in Afrikaans – loomed and scholars began to agitate more vociferously for change. Those who wish to relegate or dismiss the importance of the uprising often point to the fact that it was confined to students and school issues – not the broader struggle for liberation.

“This is nonsense, conveniently ignoring the fact that the students who fuelled the growing crisis were not, and never would be, affected by the Afrikaans ruling [being in grades senior to those affected]. What they were influenced by were calls by BC leaders to blacks to stand up and cast off their oppression and by the challenge thrown out by Winnie Mandela for student leaders to pick up the language issue as a rallying point.       

“Student concerns were thus broader and more radical than those of adults. And as they became enmeshed, so they took the struggle away from their moderate, despondent parents. ‘Our parents are prepared to suffer under the white man`s rule`, wrote a student in a letter to The World [newspaper]. ‘They have been living for years under these laws and they have become immune to them. But we strongly refuse to swallow an education that is designed to make us slaves in the country of our birth.`”   

Rebellion was now inevitable and the pot exploded on the morning of 16 June. Nothing would ever be the same. “What had started out as a cynical move in the game of succession had left the dream of grand apartheid in tatters…,” Hopkins and Grange write.     



Thank Goodness for that.