Thirty-eight years ago, on June 16, 1976, protesting pupils risked their lives to highlight the brutality of apartheid. Today, we look to the past, look to the future, and look around us at what has changed.
For Rob Hamilton, a 54-year-old Johannesburg clinical psychologist, June 16 is a day to reflect on how far the country has come. But it’s also a reminder that there is still a lot of work to be done, especially in the education system.
Hamilton was 16 and a pupil at Pretoria Boys’ High School in June 1976. Unlike many youth in his school, Hamilton was very conscious about what was happening in the country because he edited the school’s newspaper.
“There were so many stories going around the country. There were reports of black people marching in Johannesburg. Reports of blacks attacking whites, there were talks on radio stations about the incidents that took place in Soweto,” said Hamilton.
Having written a story about the uprising earlier in March that year, he didn’t think the situation would escalate to the level where people would end up dead.
“Initially, people were confused and it just seemed like black-on-white violence. But it all changed after photos of the march, with police shooting at pupils, were published in the newspapers. Especially that iconic picture of Hector Pieterson.”
When Hamilton went to university the following year, he said he was further exposed to what was happening in the country. “I went to the University of Natal and there was a battle between the old-style whites and the new liberal left.”
Of the youth of today, he said there was a radical difference between them and the youth of ‘76.
“The youth of 1976 were fighting for their sense of self-worth. It took a lot of courage to be willing to even die for what they believed in. Today’s youth have self-pride, but sometimes they take things for granted.”
In 1976, while the youth in Soweto protested against Afrikaans being used as the medium of instruction in schools, Alfreda Langer was looking forward to learning the latest dance moves. Like many girls her age, she was excited about her sweet 16 and being allowed to have a boyfriend.
Today Langer, now 54, admits that as a youth she was sheltered in her predominantly coloured community of Greenwood Park in Durban.
“We were indirectly affected because we were isolated and lived in a coloured area where there was a sense of family and community. Everyone knew everyone,” said Langer, who was at Parkhill Secondary in Greenwood Park in 1976.
“My parents were in the Labour Party, they went all over trying to raise funds for the party. My father was involved in everything, he read every newspaper, watched the news to seewhat was happening,” Langer recalls.
As she got older, she became more aware of what was happening in the country, with her elder brother being at university and involved in politics.
Her parents taught her to treat black people with respect. She said even though she was still young, she was aware that black students were receiving a lower-quality education than they were. “So we understood their plight and we were shocked to hear about the June 16 uprising, and that children had died.”
Speaking of today’s youth, she observed they were better off than in the past. “They have everything going for them, but they are too spoilt and are not grabbing the opportunities.”
School principal Kugan Subrayen said he was so appalled by the events of June 16, 1976, that it stirred his opposition to the government of the day.
Subrayen was 13 at the time and growing up in Verulam when police acted against Soweto school pupils protesting against being taught in Afrikaans.
He was a Grade 8 pupil at Talwan Singh Primary school when the Soweto massacre made international headlines.
His history teacher Bikram Budhoo, who often veered away from the prescribed syllabus to talk about the atrocities of apartheid, broke the news to Subrayen and his classmates.
“Their (the protesters) disapproval resonated with me.
“I struggled with the little Afrikaans I was being taught while their (black students) entire learning was going to be done in a language that was not their mother tongue. It was unacceptable,” he said.
A big worry was the same ruling being enforced in KZN schools. It was inevitable that Subrayen would be drawn into the active resistance against apartheid. He served as the secretary of the anti-apartheid Natal Indian Congress and later as president of Verulam’s Youth League.
“We were not as militant as the Youth League of today, but we made our presence felt,” he said. “A few of us were keen to travel to the ANC’s headquarters in Lusaka (Zambia), but my father, who was politically liberated, disapproved of such a move,” Subrayen recalled.
Sheila Mhlongo, who owns a small Durban media company, vividly remembers the June 16 events. She was 16 at the time and a pupil at Nkodibe Secondary School in Mtubatuba.
Mhlongo, now 54, remembers the year also because her mother died, and because the events in Soweto awakened her political consciousness, helped by the many pupils from Sowetan schools who fled to KwaZulu-Natal to be educated in safety.
“They flocked to our schools in droves. That’s where my political enlightenment was aroused. However, we were languishing under the hold of the Inkatha yeNkululeko yeSizwe, now the IFP. Even though we knew something about (Nelson) Mandela, we knew nothing about the ANC,” she said.
Mhlongo said you could only belong to Inkatha then.
“I, myself, was a delegate of my school for the Inkatha Youth Brigade,” she said.
Mhlongo remembers she and her schoolmates and other Inkatha Youth Brigade members marching from Nongoma to Ulundi in support of the Soweto pupils.
“Such was the situation that in a class you would be learning with a very older girl or boy of perhaps 21 or 22, but still doing a lower grade. Mostly they were from Johannesburg, having been sent by their parents to Zululand to finish their studies.
“Although I was oblivious to what was really going on, when I look back I realise I was also affected by the events of June 16, 1976,” she said.
The issue was Afrikaans, but she thinks there was little resistance in rural Natal. Even though the children from Soweto tried to infuse the rebellion, the Inkatha stronghold meant that such dissension was suppressed.
She believes the youth of today can take a leaf from book of those youngsters involved in the struggles of 38 years ago.