Where are June 16 he­roes?

Alas, they’ve grown soft in the belly and the brain, and turned into mis­guided adults, writes Sandile Memela

The Mercury - - FRONT PAGE - Memela is a writer, cul­tural critic and public ser­vant. He writes in his per­sonal ca­pac­ity

IT IS 42 years after June 1976 and the chil­dren of the chil­dren of Soweto are in­creas­ingly grow­ing aware that the fiery and prophetic fire and spirit of the much-vaunted rev­o­lu­tion has faded.

The ANC, with its weak­en­ing hands on all the levers of state power since 1994, has been in power for 25 years.

Look­ing back at the past 42 years, the an­gry, de­fi­ant and self-sac­ri­fic­ing youths who were will­ing to con­front the might­i­est mil­i­tary state in Africa have grown soft. It comes with age. When you are over 45 years old, you be­come soft around the waist and the frontal part of the brain.

The priv­i­leged with cushy govern­ment and private sec­tor jobs are the first to ad­vise their an­gry, go-for-broke off­spring to “cool it”. They are im­pa­tient and dis­mis­sive of any­thing that threat­ens the sta­bil­ity of democ­racy.

After all, they have learnt that rev­o­lu­tion is not an overnight thing. The dis­ad­van­taged who have failed to gain ac­cess to state power, re­sources and op­por­tu­ni­ties are fan­ning the fires. They have gained noth­ing. This is the teach­ing of ex­pe­ri­ence and his­tory.

The chil­dren of Soweto are old, in their late 40s, 50s and 60s. For the past 25 years, they have moved out of the arena of con­flict to bury Nel­son Man­dela, watch some for­mer ex­iles turn into mul­ti­mil­lion­aires, pur­sue ide­al­is­tic eco­nomic poli­cies, set new state pri­or­i­ties, un­der­stand political power and want to se­cure the lit­tle they have achieved as in­di­vid­u­als.

South Africa is not a so­ci­ety at war with it­self or the world. The pur­suit of vi­o­lence, de­struc­tion of prop­erty and de­sire to kill is not what makes the June 16 gen­er­a­tion come alive.

What is re­quired of them is not vi­o­lent con­fronta­tion but to be­come part of the sys­tem they fought against. The aim is to bring about change in a peaceful man­ner that will leave the coun­try united and in­tact. This coun­try be­longs to whites as much as blacks, in­clud­ing those Africans from be­yond the bor­ders.

Over the past 15 years, there has been an in­crease in con­flict be­tween the govern­ment and the peo­ple ris­ing to de­mand bet­ter ser­vice de­liv­ery. Its in­ten­sity has not spared the DA in Jo­han­nes­burg, Cape Town, Port El­iz­a­beth and Pretoria where it thought it would be the mes­siah. Iron­i­cally, this has re­sulted in self-in­flicted pain and mis­ery in black lives. Many of the town­ships have, in­creas­ingly, be­come bat­tle ar­eas leav­ing homes and public build­ings burnt and dead bod­ies.

But the past 25 years have, un­avoid­ably, changed the be­hav­iour and at­ti­tude of the then youth of June 1976. Prag­ma­tists call it Strug­gle fa­tigue.

It is id­iocy to as­sume that peo­ple who have been through more than four “rev­o­lu­tions” if you can call them that – 1960, 1976, 1985 and 1990 for in­stance – would not be bat­tle scarred and weary.

There are some over 50-year olds in Azapo or the PAC, for ex­am­ple, who want to pre­tend they have the pas­sion to breath fire and that they have not changed. They en­ter­tain the il­lu­sion of be­ing life­long rad­i­cal rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies. Ev­ery­thing has its time and pur­pose.

These rhetor­i­cal rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies find sta­tus and shal­low self-ful­fil­ment from rad­i­cal rhetoric over hard drinks. This is all an ad­ven­ture to bring back a dead past.

But for the many chil­dren of Soweto, there is no go­ing back to the past. 1976 is his­tory. The best les­son to be learnt from it is not to re­peat its mis­takes, if any. But it is dif­fi­cult for South African ac­tivists to learn from his­tory.

The next 15 years – if we are to reach the Na­tional De­vel­op­ment Plan tar­get of trans­form­ing one of the most un­equal so­ci­ety in the world by 2030 – must be about the cre­ative ad­ven­ture of na­tion build­ing and so­cial co­he­sion.

Time and en­ergy must be chan­nelled to pro­mot­ing demo­cratic ex­is­ten­tial­ism that pro­motes a spirit of self-de­ter­mi­na­tion, re­spon­si­bil­ity and ac­count­abil­ity where peo­ple help them­selves. Every cit­i­zen must be en­cour­aged to be an agent that con­trib­utes to a just and equal so­ci­ety.

The youth­ful search for mean­ing through vi­o­lence and self-in­dul­gent de­struc­tive be­hav­iour, es­pe­cially in com­mu­ni­ties and the gov­ern­ing party, is not part of the na­tion-build­ing agenda.

The idea of burn­ing down build­ings and in­sti­tu­tions that are bridges to cre­at­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties for suc­cess and achieve­ment, es­pe­cially for the young, will not take the coun­try to a bright fu­ture.

In­ter­est­ingly, many chil­dren of 1976 are cyn­i­cal to­wards the dra­matic ex­plo­sion of deep rum­bles of dis­con­tent and political in­fight­ing. Most of them have learnt that, as Oliver Tambo warned, fight­ing for free­dom is the eas­i­est part of the Strug­gle com­pared to run­ning a wealthy coun­try.

There is fear that if their chil­dren are fail­ing to take re­spon­si­bil­ity for their own lives, they are con­demned to suf­fer from the scourge of drugs, sex­ual promis­cu­ity and ex­is­ten­tial mean­ing­less­ness. It will be a hope­less fu­ture for a Nel­son Man­dela coun­try that promised to be a bea­con of hope in the world.

It is al­ways tempt­ing for the un­der-30s or un­em­ployed youth to think that life in the new South Africa is an end­less party where all you need is a govern­ment ten­der or a rich par­ent in govern­ment. This is delu­sional. One of the great­est achieve­ments of the chil­dren of Soweto was to de­liver the rev­o­lu­tion through peaceful means. When you have been through up­heaval and dra­matic re­sis­tance, it is tempt­ing to avoid re­peat­ing mis­takes of the past, es­pe­cially vi­o­lence and strug­gle that leads to death in ex­ile and loss of op­por­tu­ni­ties.

We know that ex­ile and armed strug­gle are not as ex­cit­ing as they were made out to be when Umkhonto we Sizwe was launched in the early 1960s.

There are no winners in war. Worse, we have far too many peace-time he­roes, in­clud­ing gen­er­als who never fired a shot at the en­emy.

With 1976 came, depend­ing on how you look at things, im­por­tant val­ues col­lapsed – re­spect for el­ders, ac­count­abil­ity, the value of ed­u­ca­tion and free­dom of choice and the pro­mo­tion of peace in the com­mu­nity. At the time it was be­lieved that the end jus­ti­fies the means. The heroic icons of the Strug­gle, es­pe­cially Robert Sobukwe, Steve Biko and Man­dela are dead. They live in the ideals and prin­ci­ples that have to be trans­lated into re­al­ity. This is the new strug­gle.

The new times in a post-apartheid so­ci­ety de­mand that the heirs of their self­less­ness, self-sac­ri­fice and ser­vice to the na­tion and world should have opened an un­charted fu­ture that be­gan in 1994. It should have marked a turn­ing point that beck­oned a fu­ture of jus­tice and equal­ity.

The Con­sti­tu­tion out­lines the val­ues of se­cu­rity and com­fort, ed­u­ca­tion and work as the way to a happy life that en­joys free­dom and democ­racy.

Over the past 25 years, the chil­dren of the chil­dren of Soweto have, alas, grown into mis­guided young adults. Democ­racy has ma­tured and the heirs need to be seen to act in a re­spon­si­ble man­ner that is based on hu­man rights.

There is no need for po­lar­i­sa­tion be­tween the young and old. The rise of the ide­al­is­tic EFF, for ex­am­ple, is a wel­come de­vel­op­ment that should be gad­fly in the con­science of the rulers of the coun­try.

There was a time in the mid-1980s – with the rise of the Mass Demo­cratic Move­ment – when the chil­dren of Soweto moved to­gether with their white coun­ter­parts in their need to en­vi­sion a ma­jor­ity so­ci­ety-based demo­cratic prin­ci­ples.The trans­la­tion of the ideals into foun­da­tional prin­ci­ples en­shrined in the Con­sti­tu­tion had created the hope that a just and equal so­ci­ety is at­tain­able. It was a mon­u­men­tal achieve­ment.

Alas, that South Africa is one of the most un­equal so­ci­ety in the world to­day.

The chil­dren of Soweto are adults who are ap­proach­ing old age. Their con­cern is to se­cure their pen­sions, live in com­fort­able homes in ex­clu­sive sub­urbs, look after their af­flicted health and se­cure a bright fu­ture for their un­grate­ful off­spring.

Those who are over 50 will not be drink­ing up any rev­o­lu­tion­ary brew that will re­sult in the set­back of what has been at­tained over the past 25 year. Re­alpoli­tik dic­tates that they have to make the best of the bad su­prem­a­cist and racist cap­i­tal­ism.

Black peo­ple do not con­trol the econ­omy but they are in power, what­ever that means. As a re­sult, the risk of the June 16 gen­er­a­tion be­com­ing tomb­stones of the be­trayal of African dreams and as­pi­ra­tions can­not be ruled out.

It is for this rea­son that the chil­dren of 1976 must hand over the ba­ton to their off­spring to take re­spon­si­bil­ity to build the kind of the so­ci­ety that they and their chil­dren will live in.

The chil­dren of Soweto have ex­hausted their his­tor­i­cal role. It was a mis­take to think that be­ing in ex­ile or fight­ing for free­dom en­ti­tled any­body to run the coun­try or be a min­is­ter or premier.

What is clear is that it is the duty of the young to im­prove on what their par­ents and pre­de­ces­sors have failed to do.

South Africa must ur­gently learn to un­leash the power and po­ten­tial of the young. The June gen­er­a­tion can share their in­sights but must move out of the way.

Black pupils take to the streets to protest the qual­ity of their ed­u­ca­tion on June 16, 1976.

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