Les­sons to be learnt from the class of 1976

The Star Early Edition - - INSIDE -

THIS month 41 years ago, thou­sands of Soweto school­child­ren took to the streets to protest against the racism and in­ad­e­quacy of Bantu ed­u­ca­tion. That mo­ment has come to sym­bol­ise the role that young peo­ple have played and can play in shap­ing South Africa’s po­lit­i­cal dis­course. It re­mains a touch point for stu­dent ac­tivists to­day.

The marches in June 1976 took shape around a uni­fy­ing is­sue: the im­po­si­tion of Afrikaans as a teach­ing medium in black class­rooms, whose cur­ricu­lum was dic­tated by the Depart­ment of Bantu Ed­u­ca­tion.

Images from the march are filled with posters pro­claim­ing “To Hell With Afrikaans” and “Vorster and Kruger are rubbish”. This refers to John Vorster, the prime min­is­ter of South Africa and one of apartheid’s ar­chi­tects, and his po­lice min­is­ter Jimmy Kruger.

The jux­ta­po­si­tion of these claims is an im­por­tant one. It speaks to how Soweto chil­dren be­gan to strad­dle the space be­tween lo­cal and im­me­di­ate con­cerns and a na­tional po­lit­i­cal agenda. This en­abled them to tran­scend the is­sues of their class­rooms and re­ju­ve­nate the Strug­gle against apartheid on a na­tional and in­ter­na­tional, scale.

Forty years later South Africa is again in the midst of a po­lit­i­cal move­ment led by the youth – this time on univer­sity cam­puses. To­day’s stu­dent ac­tivists are of­ten com­pared to the gen­er­a­tion of 1976. In mass marches through Jo­han­nes­burg and Pre­to­ria the form of their protest has prompted the com­par­i­son.

In their ar­tic­u­la­tion of ide­olo­gies like Black Con­scious­ness they echo some of the key thinkers of that pe­riod. But their protests re­main largely con­strained by the cam­puses on which they hap­pen. In light of these strug­gles, it is use­ful to con­sider how the pupils of 1976 tack­led sim­i­lar prob­lems.

The Afrikaans Medium De­cree of 1974 de­clared that in black schools, Afrikaans must be used equally with English as a medium for teach­ing non-lan­guage sub­jects like maths and so­cial sci­ences.

Pupils and teach­ers strug­gled to teach and learn in a lan­guage for which they were ill-trained and ill-equipped with text­books and other ma­te­rial.

His­to­rian He­lena Poh­landt-McCormick has writ­ten that the Afrikaans medium pol­icy “em­bod­ied ev­ery­thing that was wrong with Bantu ed­u­ca­tion”. She points to its dis­re­gard of sound ped­a­gogy and of the voices of the par­ents, teach­ers and pupils on whom it was im­posed.

By the mid­dle of the 1976 school year, pupils had or­gan­ised them­selves into in­di­vid­ual protests. Many fo­cused on the im­po­si­tion of Afrikaans, oth­ers ad­dressed pupil­teacher re­la­tions and cor­po­ral pun­ish­ment at in­di­vid­ual schools.

They were in­spired and en­cour­aged to con­nect the is­sues to the broader po­lit­i­cal sys­tem by a range of in­flu­ences in their homes, com­mu­ni­ties and class­rooms. Among these were univer­sity stu­dents who had been “con­sci­en­tised” through the Black Con­scious­ness Move­ment and ex­pelled from ru­ral “bush” uni­ver­si­ties dur­ing waves of protest in 1972 and 1974. The most prom­i­nent of these was Onkgopotse Tiro.

Af­ter Tiro was ex­pelled from the Univer­sity of the North (to­day the Univer­sity of Lim­popo, out­side Polok­wane), where he was a prom­i­nent stu­dent leader and Black Con­scious­ness pro­po­nent, he took up a job teach­ing his­tory at Mor­ris Isaac­son High School in Soweto.

Though he was fired in 1973 and killed in exile in Botswana in 1974, some of his stu­dents, in­clud­ing Tsi­etsi Mashinini, be­came key lead­ers in the 1976 up­ris­ing.

Ad­dress­ing struc­tural op­pres­sion Tiro and other young teach­ers en­cour­aged their pupils to con­nect the par­tic­u­lar griev­ances of their own sit­u­a­tion – the in­equities and in­jus­tices of Bantu ed­u­ca­tion – to the struc­tural op­pres­sion meted out by the apartheid state.

This was a les­son pupils brought to their or­gan­i­sa­tion of the protests on June 16, and one that played an in­creas­ingly im­por­tant role in the weeks and months that fol­lowed. Pupils in the Soweto Stu­dents Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Coun­cil called for their par­ents to stay away from work, and to boy­cott white-owned shops and prod­ucts.

By Au­gust the com­mit­tee fo­cused its en­er­gies on or­gan­is­ing a pupil and worker stay­away for the end of the month. Ac­cord­ing to Si­bongile Mkha­bela, a mem­ber of the SSRC, this was in­tended to hit the white econ­omy.

A few months later pupils ral­lied their fam­i­lies to par­tic­i­pate in a Black Christ­mas to mourn those who had been killed by the po­lice since June.

Univer­sity stu­dents of 2015 and 2016 have some key things in com­mon with their 1976 pre­de­ces­sors. They have changed the tenor and shape of po­lit­i­cal dis­cus­sion around ed­u­ca­tion, more ef­fec­tively than any other sin­gle move­ment since 1994.

They have rein­ter­ro­gated the ide­olo­gies that an­i­mated pupils in 1976. Their en­gage­ment with Black Con­scious­ness and Biko, with Fanon and with pan-African­ism has led to a move­ment to de­colonise uni­ver­si­ties’ fac­ul­ties and cur­ric­ula.

But to­day’s stu­dents have strug­gled to move their ac­tivism be­yond uni­ver­si­ties. Notwith­stand­ing sig­nif­i­cant gains in the move­ment to end the ex­ploita­tive prac­tice of out­sourc­ing jobs on cam­puses, for which the Fal­list move­ments of 2015 and 2016 de­serve a great deal of credit, stu­dent move­ments have yet to cre­ate en­dur­ing al­liances with work­ers out­side the univer­sity, or with pupils.

Be­yond shared ide­ol­ogy, the 1976 gen­er­a­tion, and, per­haps even more so, the univer­sity stu­dents of the early 1970s who taught and in­spired them, might of­fer some strate­gic les­sons. – The Con­ver­sa­tion

They con­nected the is­sues to the broader po­lit­i­cal sys­tem

The au­thor is co-editor of pub­lished by Wits Univer­sity Press.

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