16/06/76: beginning of the end of apartheid
POLITICS tilted steadily away from old certainties 41 years ago this week when the school children of Soweto rose in revolt against the inflammatory and – even then – wholly bizarre injunction that they should do at least half their lessons, in subjects such as maths and geography, in Afrikaans.
The protests, which soon spread, took everyone by surprise – even the exiled liberation movements, whose ranks, and vigour, were massively boosted in the following months by scores of young, fired-up recruits.
In the years since, commemorating June 16 has delineated the trajectory of change, and, perhaps, changelessness.
In a sense, the revolt was the beginning of the end.
Increasingly, even Nationalists, mostly in private, recognised there could be no turning back, and the possibility of reform began to be entertained more seriously.
The 10th anniversary of the uprising was a daunting commemoration: the struggle was full-blown, the answering repression brutal and uncompromising.
The front page of June 16, 1986, is a bleak snapshot: a car bomb in Durban, violence across the country (22 dead over the preceding four days) a mass stay-away, draconian emergency regulations, and a complete ban on unrest reporting.
By 1996, the 20th anniversary, the Soweto uprising seemed barely to register. A smattering of insignificant Youth Day reports appeared here and there in the newspapers of June 15 and 16 that year, one of which quoted a Gauteng education official as saying most black and white pupils were virtually ignorant of the history of the uprising. “It’s not a black-white issue, it’s a youth-of-today issue,” she said. In Cape Town, a headline expressed it bluntly: “350 brave stormy weather for Youth Day rally.”
In 2017, the Soweto revolt is almost certainly more meaningful than it was in 1996, and the Argus’s report of 2001 goes some way in explaining why that should be so.
It noted that many South Africans “admit they feel they have been cheated out of their revolution, the revolu- tion promised them by their leaders, the firebrand socialists-turned candle-lit socialites of today”.
It went on: “Finding a way to remember an uprising that made emotional as well as moral sense is harder for those who understood the objectives of the negotiated settlement were meant to coincide more or less with the objectives of their own bloody, sweaty efforts.
“For them, it’s hard to properly remember and memorialise the brave, reckless children of 1976, swept up in the risky zeal of the crowd, the anger of the wounded, and the galvanising rhetoric of standard bearers who, too often, have simply turned away. The struggle, as they say, continues.”
And there is a sense in which the following report of June 17, 1976 is all too redolent of the disaffection, protest and conflict of today. JOHANNESBURG. Yesterday was the most terrifying day of my life as I lay caught between the crossfire of police bullets and stones from enraged pupils on the rampage.
A rock hit me on the shoulder as I ran behind police lines after they had opened fire on demonstrating pupils. More and more stones came crashing down. Then I turned back to join the pupils, and about the same time the police opened fire directly on us.
It is terrifying to watch a gun being aimed on you. If I lay on the ground the pupils would have trampled over me. The students’ anger was aroused about 10.15am when police fired the first volley of shots into the air, apparently to scare the demonstrating pupils.
This infuriated the more