16/06/76: be­gin­ning of the end of apartheid

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - FRONT PAGE -

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

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