Where are June 16 heroes?
Alas, they’ve grown soft in the belly and the brain, and turned into misguided adults, writes Sandile Memela
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.