The uprising from a fresh perspective
IN 1910, the Policy Paper on Language was drafted. Its purpose was to consolidate the exclusive use of English and Dutch (the latter would be replaced by Afrikaans in 1925) as languages of instruction in South African schools.
Fast-forward six decades later to the early 1970s, when Department of Bantu Education minister MC Botha and his deputy, Andries Treurnicht, both prominent members of the Broederbond, looked to accelerate the enforcement of Afrikaans as the medium of instruction in African schools.
No one could have imagined that these actions would lead to the watershed moment in South African history that would come to be known simply as “June 16”.
What is there to be said about June 16, 1976 that has not already been said? Who were these pupils who took to the streets on that fateful day? What drove them to the point where they declared “enough is enough”?
These are the questions Sifiso Mxolisi Ndlovu looks to answer in his book The Soweto Uprisings.
Ndlovu, a professor of history at the University of South Africa, uses newspaper articles, interviews with former pupils and his own personal account to provide the reader with a “counter memory” of events leading up to and events after June 16, 1976.
He was a 14-year-old pupil at Phefeni Junior Secondary School and was among the active participants in the protest action against the use of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction.
One of the most contested subjects of June 16 is the role that various political movements played in sparking the uprising.
The book diligently analyses claims by various stakeholders, including the PAC, Black Consciousness groups and student bodies, on their supposed influence on pupils and the subsequent origins of the Soweto uprisings.
It is important to recognise that, by law, school was not compulsory for black children.
The children who did want to go to school were there because they had made a choice.
Ndlovu writes: “The boundaries were not always clear between childhood, adolescence and adulthood.”
The beauty of this book lies mainly in the interviews. One such interview is that with Antoinette Sithole nee Pieterson. Who can forget the image of her running alongside Mbuyisa Makhubo, who was carrying a dying Hector Pieterson in his arms.
Ndlovu recognises the roles of black journalists – the likes of Sophie Tema and Nat Serache. He comments: “African journalists were traditionally consigned the role of unsung gatherers of facts who turned over their notes to white journalists, who generally, with the aid of white editors, received all the credit for the story.”
The Soweto Uprisings: Counter-Memories of June 1976 gives a fresh perspective and gives impetus to the youth of 2017 to do some introspection.
Sifiso Mxolisi Ndlovu