What was June 16 for?

The core sym­bol­ism of Soweto and its as­so­ci­a­tion with the rad­i­cal fringe of the lib­er­a­tion move­ment has been swept un­der the car­pet

CityPress - - Voices & Careers - Ju­lian Kun­nie voices@city­press.co.za

Afew months ago, I watched a film drama­tis­ing the 1976 Soweto in­sur­rec­tion ti­tled Col­ors of Heaven, re­leased on Net­flix in the US and for­merly ti­tled A Mil­lion Col­ors. The film ap­peared to be very in­ter­est­ing and il­lus­tra­tive un­til a point when the main char­ac­ter, Muntu Nde­bele, played by Wandile Mole­batsi, ex­presses his as­pi­ra­tions for a fu­ture South Africa in a con­ver­sa­tion at his fam­ily home in Soweto, stat­ing that he plans on be­ing deputy prime min­is­ter in a govern­ment headed by Nor­man Cox – a close friend of Nde­bele’s, played by Ja­son Hart­man.

That’s when I lost any se­ri­ous in­ter­est I had in the film, notwith­stand­ing the ac­co­lades it has re­ceived in South Africa, Europe and Hollywood. Many would take is­sue with my cri­tique of the movie, but the point needs to be clearly made, par­tic­u­larly in view of the 41st an­niver­sary of the Soweto in­sur­rec­tion – an event that marked a rad­i­cal turn­ing point in the South African lib­er­a­tion strug­gle.

The sac­ri­fice of more than a thou­sand black teens with their lives; the forced ex­il­ing of the prin­ci­pal lead­ers of the up­ris­ing, Tsi­etsi Mashinini, Bar­ney Mok­ga­tle and Selby Semela, along with thou­sands of other ac­tivists from Soweto; the ac­com­pa­ny­ing black con­scious­ness move­ment en­gi­neered by iconic po­lit­i­cal titan Steven Bantu Biko and the re­sul­tant groundswell of black re­sis­tance to apartheid re­pres­sion pro­pelled the coun­try to­wards the first demo­crat­i­cally elected black ma­jor­ity govern­ment in 1994. If it wasn’t for these black teens, South Africa would still be liv­ing un­der the tyranny of vi­o­lent white mi­nor­ity rule.

Cat­a­stroph­i­cally, the recog­ni­tion of the foun­da­tional con­tri­bu­tions of op­pressed black youth and the mem­ory of the deaths of thou­sands of young peo­ple in the pro­tracted strug­gle for lib­er­a­tion has been whit­tled away over the years.

The core sym­bol­ism of Soweto and its as­so­ci­a­tion with the rad­i­cal fringe of the lib­er­a­tion move­ment has been swept un­der the car­pet, ev­i­denced in the very per­func­tory com­mem­o­ra­tions and govern­ment-spon­sored events held around this time.

Very few want to re­mem­ber the blood shed by the youth of Soweto and other town­ships and ru­ral com­mu­ni­ties all over the coun­try – Alexandra, Se­bo­keng, Katle­hong, Man­gaung, KwaMashu, Im­bali, Khayelit­sha, Mitchells Plain, New Brighton, Zwide, KwaZakhele, Mamelodi and so many oth­ers – where black peo­ple con­tinue to live in di­lap­i­dated houses and shacks with poor san­i­ta­tion, pot-holed streets, dim light­ing, run-down schools and mar­ginal pub­lic ser­vices and ameni­ties in 2017, while white af­flu­ence and pal­try black elitism is be­ing en­forced in the plush sub­urbs of the coun­try’s ma­jor cities.

A Euro­cen­tric bias

We have learnt noth­ing from his­tory, theoso­pher Jiddu Kr­ish­na­murti laments, be­cause we con­tinue and in­creas­ingly en­gage in vi­o­lence, wars, ex­ploita­tion, plun­der, self­ish­ness, greed, and dis­pos­ses­sion – even though we as hu­mans claim we are dif­fer­ent from other an­i­mals be­cause we are cul­tured and have in­tel­li­gence and lan­guage.

The en­trench­ment of struc­tures of black im­pov­er­ish­ment and white elit­ist priv­i­lege continues un­abated, prin­ci­pally be­cause we con­tinue to live in a colo­nially-driven, glob­alised and cap­i­tal­ist world in which what is white and as­so­ci­ated with Europe and money is con­sid­ered valu­able. Cor­re­spond­ingly, what is black and in­dige­nous African in essence is viewed as anath­ema, un­sta­ble, un­vi­able and un­sus­tain­able.

Con­sider the press cov­er­age of var­i­ous is­sues within South Africa and the rest of Africa within “main­stream” me­dia. Gen­er­ally, the me­dia re­flects a Euro­cen­tric bias in which Africa is viewed as a haven of ir­re­press­ible vi­o­lence, in­sta­bil­ity and so­cial de­cay; akin to colo­nial de­pic­tions of the African con­ti­nent and black peo­ple in gen­eral as “sav­age” and “un­civilised”.

Lit­tle ref­er­ence is made to the his­tor­i­cal legacies of coloni­sa­tion, slav­ery and cap­i­tal­ism that have driven in­dige­nous African and other cul­tures so­cially and eco­nom­i­cally to the mar­gins of Western glob­alised hege­mony through lin­guacide and eth­no­cide. For in­stance, re­gard­less of the po­lit­i­cal and his­tor­i­cal com­plex­i­ties within neigh­bour­ing Zim­babwe, the le­git­i­mate at­tempt to re­dis­tribute dis­pos­sessed in­dige­nous African lands is viewed as re­pres­sive and groups rep­re­sent­ing the land­less, dis­pos­sessed and home­less, such as Abahlali baseMjon­dolo, are con­tin­u­ally por­trayed as il­le­git­i­mate.

How did in­dige­nous Africans and their de­scen­dants dis­pos­sessed by Euro­pean colo­nial­ists from the mid-17th cen­tury to the present come to be de­scribed nor­ma­tively as “squat­ters” and “il­le­gal” in the land of their an­ces­tors and birth? Es­sen­tially, such terms re­flect colo­nial­ist ide­ol­ogy, and for these terms to be used in an African coun­try that made world his­tory in re­sist­ing op­pres­sion and racism is shame­ful. They un­der­score the ex­tent to which Euro­pean colo­nial­ist and cap­i­tal­ist brain­wash­ing has be­come suf­fused with the South African (and by ex­ten­sion African) re­al­ity. Small won­der then that in­dige­nous African lan­guages be­ing in­tro­duced and re­pro­duced nor­ma­tively within ed­u­ca­tional, so­cial and eco­nomic cir­cles in South Africa is hardly real. We are re­minded that “English” is as­so­ci­ated with pros­per­ity and thus must be re­tained as the central lan­guage of eco­nom­ics, pol­i­tics and ed­u­ca­tion. In­dige­nous African lan­guages that are val­orised, in­sti­tu­tion­alised and nor­malised within South Africa will keep Africans “in the bush”, as one re­spon­dent to an ar­ti­cle emailed me some years ago. The prob­lem with Nde­bele’s state­ment about be­com­ing deputy prime min­is­ter to a white prime min­is­ter in Col­ors of Heaven is part of the fun­da­men­tal prob­lem that postapartheid South Africa continues to ex­pe­ri­ence well into this sec­ond decade of the 21st cen­tury: black peo­ple need to be held in tute­lage to white supremacy at all lev­els be­cause whites know best, in­clud­ing in a film.

While it is in­dis­putable that there are gen­uine re­la­tion­ships be­tween blacks and whites in South Africa and that there are many whites who ver­i­ta­bly sup­port so­cial jus­tice for black peo­ple, the fact of the mat­ter is that the coun­try re­mains un­der white lead­er­ship with “a black face”, a pre­con­di­tion for po­lit­i­cal, eco­nomic and so­cial “sta­bil­ity”. This was the com­pro­mise that the ANC ac­cepted when ne­go­ti­at­ing with the apartheid regime in the 1980s and into the early 1990s: that white eco­nomic and so­cial priv­i­lege and il­le­git­i­mate own­er­ship of the bulk of the land would re­main vir­tu­ally in­tact, while a black govern­ment would con­vey the sem­blance of po­lit­i­cal power through the “demo­cratic process” heav­ily de­ter­mined by Euro­cen­tric and An­glo-Amer­i­can cap­i­tal which owns the bulk of South’s Africa in­dus­trial, min­eral and mon­e­tary wealth.

It’s not that white pro­duc­tion of films on Africa has no moral ba­sis; the prob­lem is that vir­tu­ally all of these pro­duc­tions view Africa through the lens of white supremacy, with whites gen­er­ally be­ing “di­rec­tor” and black peo­ple fol­low­ing a white script. Richard At­ten­bor­ough’s film on Steve Biko, Cry Free­dom, for in­stance, falls fully un­der this cri­tique. Much of that film chron­i­cles the ad­ven­tures of Don­ald Woods af­ter the killing of Biko by apartheid po­lice in the last third of the film.

South Africans are con­stantly told that June 16, now called Youth Day (and con­ve­niently changed from Soweto Day, most likely be­cause it would stir up mem­o­ries of the vi­o­lence of apartheid against the black youth of Soweto and thus ag­gra­vate racial an­tag­o­nisms be­tween blacks and whites), is a day to re­mem­ber the youth of South Africa.

Iron­i­cally, there are hun­dreds of thou­sands of home­less chil­dren clas­si­fied as “street chil­dren” who are ex­ploited sex­u­ally and eco­nom­i­cally even while Youth Day is cel­e­brated. The ma­jor­ity of the black com­mu­nity, of­ten young peo­ple, that is de­nied the right to well-funded pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion and health­care is part of the 80% that re­mains im­pov­er­ished, while a mi­nor­ity, pre­dom­i­nantly white, sprin­kled with a fringe black elite, sends its chil­dren to well-funded pub­lic and pri­vate schools and re­ceives pri­va­tised health­care.

Shift­ing our gaze to Africa

Why are blacks con­stantly told to play sec­ond fid­dle in a coun­try and con­ti­nent that is over­whelm­ingly black, like in Col­ors of Heaven? Why is black de­pen­dence on white lead­er­ship and il­licit own­er­ship of the land, econ­omy, fi­nances and cul­ture so per­va­sive in 2017?

These ques­tions are not raised to in­sti­gate racial an­i­mosi­ties be­tween blacks and whites. We have enough of that. Dis­par­i­ties en­trench that. They are, how­ever, de­signed to make us break with the in­vet­er­ate cancer of white supremacy and hege­mony, so that South Africans re­gard­less of race can all live with mu­tu­al­ity, rec­i­proc­ity and so­cial jus­tice in a gen­uinely non-racial so­ci­ety that recog­nises the his­tory, beauty and value of in­dige­nous African civil­i­sa­tions and cul­tures as Es’kia Mphahlele, trag­i­cally un­der­ap­pre­ci­ated in the land of his birth, em­bod­ied in his life and teach­ing.

In essence, we are in des­per­ate need of a so­ci­ety re­vamp so that South Africans shift their gazes from Europe to Africa, are more ed­u­cated about the African con­ti­nent and be­come in­volved in build­ing a strong and united Africa where poverty, war and un­der­de­vel­op­ment are firmly abol­ished.

Ul­ti­mately, the spirit of Soweto’s his­toric in­sur­rec­tion is lib­er­at­ing for us all be­cause it dis­man­tles the ed­i­fice of white supremacy and de­mol­ishes in­cul­cated dis­tor­tions of black in­fe­ri­or­ity and cul­tural in­ad­e­quacy where hu­man­ity is no longer de­fined in terms of the patho­log­i­cal and dis­torted fab­ri­ca­tion of “race”, but seen for the spir­its we are in essence as cre­ation has en­dowed upon us.

Kun­nie is an aca­demic ac­tivist, pro­fes­sor and re­searcher. His lat­est book is The Cost of Glob­al­iza­tion: Dan­gers to the

Earth and Its Peo­ple


HIS­TORIC Col­ors Of Heaven, a film in­spired by the June 16 1976 up­ris­ing

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