Youth Month should cel­e­brate

We must ac­knowl­edge the crit­i­cal role played by young black women on June 16, writes

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LAST week Fri­day marked 41 years since the Soweto Stu­dents’ Up­ris­ing that took place on the 16th June, 1976, a day that ush­ered in a de­ci­sive turn­ing point in the lib­er­a­tion strug­gle in Aza­nia (SA).

To­day the day is a cel­e­brated na­tional hol­i­day re­branded as “Youth Day”, a day in which con­tri­bu­tions of young peo­ple in the lib­er­a­tion project are usu­ally evoked and cel­e­brated.

In fact, the whole month of June has be­come re-chris­tened as “Youth Month”.

But, there are se­ri­ous dis­tor­tions and mis­rep­re­sen­ta­tions of his­tor­i­cal facts in the dom­i­nant pub­lic nar­ra­tives around the 1976 Stu­dents’ Up­ris­ing. One of the most crit­i­cal is the per­sis­tent sub­tle pro­jec­tion of that up­ris­ing as the some­what ex­clu­sive ini­tia­tive of young men, to the com­plete ex­clu­sion and era­sure of the in­valu­able con­tri­bu­tions and sac­ri­fices of young women of that time.

Very of­ten, when June 16 is dis­cussed or com­mem­o­rated, the painful ex­pe­ri­ences, sac­ri­fices and con­tri­bu­tions of the young black women of the 1976 gen­er­a­tion in the fight against the white su­prem­a­cist ed­u­ca­tion are largely down­played (men­tioned in pass­ing), or com­pletely erased and si­lenced.

It is as though June 16 was the sole ini­tia­tive of the prom­i­nent male stu­dents like Tsi­etsi Mashinini and Khotso Sethloho and of course, the first boy vic­tim, Zo­lile Hec­tor Pi­eter­son; as though no black women were in­volved at all in the plan­ning meet­ings and the sub­se­quent protest on that fate­ful day and weeks af­ter.

The names and iden­ti­ties of young women rarely ap­pear even when vic­tims of that June 16 mas­sacre are evoked in pub­lic di­a­logues, in­tel­lec­tual dis­course or me­dia re­ports. These black women are con­tin­u­ously ren­dered in­vis­i­ble by the en­tire sys­tem; they sim­ply don’t ex­ist, they are not re­garded as wor­thy sub­jects of his-story.

For ex­am­ple, there are many fe­male stu­dents who were shot and killed at var­i­ous places around Chai­welo when the Up­ris­ing be­gan at Nghun­gun­yane Sec­ondary School, whose iden­ti­ties re­main a mys­tery till this day. Other ex­am­ples are two specific women from Dlamini whose in­volve­ment in the June 16 Up­ris­ing re­sulted in their life­time con­fine­ment to wheel­chairs.

On the June 17, 1976, a young black girl, Her­mina Leroke, was shot dead in Diep­kloof af­ter she and her peers had seen a he­li­copter and ran. Her com­pan­ions and friends wit­nessed her killing by the po­lice. Her name, like many other young women who died, is un­known.

Even when pic­tures of the June 16 events are shown on any pub­lic plat­forms, the se­lec­tive gen­der­ing of the im­ages used is quite ap­par­ent. In the me­dia, in academia and in po­lit­i­cal spa­ces the his­toric im­ages used to tell the story are those with largely male stu­dents.

Im­ages of the June 16 up­ris­ing with young black women lead­ing in front, car­ry­ing plac­ards with revo­lu­tion­ary mes­sages along­side the male stu­dents, de­fi­ant against mil­i­tary and po­lice ar­moury, are rarely pub­lished or used.

Con­se­quently, the only sto­ries that are told are those of the brave young men of that gen­er­a­tion; those of the many brave, but name­less, young women don’t mat­ter much in our na­tional con­scious­ness and mem­ory.

Take Sam Nz­ima’s fa­mous im­age of Mbuy­isa Makhubu car­ry­ing Zo­lile Pi­eter­son’s dead body, for ex­am­ple. In the same frame on that im­age is a clearly emo­tional An­toinette Sit­hole. But she bears lit­tle sig­nif­i­cance, she is af­forded no his­toric cur­rency at all be­sides be­ing known as the sis­ter of the dead boy car­ried by Makhubu whose where­abouts are to­day un­known. Noth­ing is said about the fact that she was a young woman who had made a con­scious de­ci­sion, like many oth­ers, to protest on that day. We sim­ply know her as ‘Hec­tor’s sis­ter’.

The sub­tle con­sen­sus con­structed through this dis­torted ver­sion of, and ap­proach to, his­tory is that June 16 was, firstly, con­ceived by men and led by men only; sec­ondly, an ex­clu­sive ini­tia­tive by stu­dents only; and, thirdly, a one-day event which changed the course of his­tory.

There are nu­mer­ous black women, lit­tle known be­cause they were not in lead­er­ship po­si­tions or did not ap­pear in pho­tog­ra­pher’s frames, whose in­volve­ment, con­tri­bu­tions and ex­pe­ri­ences dur­ing the Up­ris­ing were sig­nif­i­cantly pro­found.

Even the only woman who was an ex­ec­u­tive mem­ber of the Soweto Stu­dents’ Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Coun­cil and gen­eral sec­re­tary of the South African Stu­dent Move­ment that planned and or­gan­ised the June 16 Up­ris­ing, Si­bongile Mkha­bela, is less known to to­day’s youth. And she is not an ex­cep­tion. There are many black women who were di­rectly in­volved in the June 16 Up­ris­ing, like Dikeledi Motswene, who was a Grade 9 pupil at Ithute Se­nior Sec­ondary in 1976; Priscilla Ms­esenyane, who was a Grade 4 pupil at St Matthews Ro­man Catholic School; Naledi Kedi Mot­sau, who was a Grade 12 pupil at Naledi High School; and Martha Matthews who was a Grade 12 pupil at Kelek­itso Se­nior Sec­ondary, whose sto­ries never get reg­is­tered on our col­lec­tive na­tional mem­ory and con­scious­ness.

Other res­i­dents and black peo­ple of Soweto who were di­rectly or in­di­rectly in­volved and af­fected by the 1976 Stu­dents’ Up­ris­ing, like com­mu­nity ac­tivists, par­ents, of­fi­cials, shop own­ers, nurses, doc­tors and teach­ers like Nozipho Joyce Mx­akathi (now Diseko) also dis­ap­pear com­pletely from our mem­ory when the story is nar­rated.

An­other se­ri­ous lim­i­ta­tion of the way mem­ory about June 16 is re­con­structed to­day is the lack of de­tail about the sub­se­quent ar­rests, tor­tures and killings that oc­curred days and months af­ter that ini­tial day; right up to the trial of the Soweto 11 who were ac­cused of sedi­tion for plan­ning and or­gan­is­ing the stu­dent protest in 1976.

For days, weeks and months af­ter June 16 the black com­mu­nity was un­der siege. In the book, Soweto 16 June 1976: Per­sonal Ac­counts Of The Up­ris­ing, Martha Matthews who took part in the June 16 protests is quoted as hav­ing said “the fol­low­ing day it was worse be­cause these boers were now fol­low­ing peo­ple in­side their yards. We could not go out. We could not go buy in shops… The boers’ cars were pa­trolling, and they were driv­ing very slow, very slow. I am telling you, if you want to die just get out­side the house… They could even shoot a tod­dler as young as six years”.

Then there are sto­ries of those that died on June 16; none speaks for the dead as his­tory is re­con­structed and told. The con­tes­ta­tions over the life­less bod­ies of those killed that en­sued be­tween the State, their fam­i­lies and com­mu­ni­ties are muted and un­known.

This parochial ap­proach to his­tory also min­imises the scale of the vi­cious­ness, vi­o­lence and bru­tal­ity of the racist apartheid regime. Sto­ries of home in­va­sions at night, po­lice threats, beat­ings, sex­ual ha­rass­ment, in­ter­ro­ga­tions and tor­ture of many women, mostly moth­ers, grand­moth­ers and aunts of stu­dents, are down­played and men­tioned in pass­ing at least, or com­pletely erased at worst.

So, as we honour the mem­ory and com­mem­o­rate the sac­ri­fices of the youth on 1976, we must un­der­stand that the June 16 gen­er­a­tion were het­ero­ge­neous and di­verse in many re­spects. We must ac­knowl­edge the crit­i­cal role played by young black women. Their con­tri­bu­tions must be equally re­mem­bered, evoked and cel­e­brated. Oth­er­wise, we con­tinue to in­sti­tu­tion­alise vi­o­lence against women through their era­sure from na­tional mem­ory and our col­lec­tive con­scious­ness. Thando Sipuye is an Afrikan his­to­rian and a so­cial sci­en­tist. He is an ex­ec­u­tive mem­ber of The Ankh Foun­da­tion, the Black­house Kol­lec­tive and the Afri­cen­trik Study Group based at the Univer­sity of Sobukwe (Fort Hare). He writes in his per­sonal ca­pac­ity.

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