Sibongile Mkhabela, who is now the chief executive of Barloworld Empowerment Foundation, was secretary-general of the SA Students Movement and 18 years old in 1976. File picture: Cara Viereckl
Sibongile Mkhabela, who is now the chief executive of Barloworld Empowerment Foundation, was secretary-general of the SA Students Movement and 18 years old in 1976. File picture: Cara Viereckl

What's missing today is accountability, says Sibongile Mkhabela, one of the leaders of 1976 student protests

By Sihle Mavuso Time of article published Jun 20, 2021

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Forty-five years after the protests that rocked the foundation of the apartheid regime, one of the leaders of the historic 1976 uprisings, Sibongile MaMthembu Mkhabela has spoken about it in an interview with Independent Media

The protests started in Soweto in Johannesburg to oppose the gazetting of Afrikaans as the language of teaching in schools and Mkhabela, who is now the chief executive of Barloworld Empowerment Foundation, was then the secretary-general of the SA Students Movement and 18 years old.

She was a pupil at Naledi High School in Soweto and about to finish schooling. She said she joined the Struggle because she was inspired by the likes of Elaine Khuzwayo, who she described as a “conscious leader”.

Mkhabela said one of the many lessons that could be learnt from the June 16, 1976 protests was that power needed to be balanced to avoid its abuse by those in authority.

She decried that the country’s democracy has been derailed because leaders have been given unfettered power by the citizenry.

“Power needs to be balanced … anyone to be in power without the right values is likely to derail the democracy project. We have seen the democracy project totally derailed … We have to learn that we can’t put our power in a single political party,” Mkhabela said, adding that South Africa right now needs “a powerful people’s movement”, not powerful politicians or a powerful party, to get back on track.

She stressed that she is not a member of any political party and admitted that as was the case in 1976, her political philosophy is that of the Black Consciousness Movement, the philosophy of Steve Biko.

To get the democracy project on track, Mkhabela said citizens must demand accountability from leaders and take back the total power which was handed over to politicians.

“I think what is missing is the part of accountability … When we talk about service delivery, we are talking about passing citizenry and active government, that language has to change. So we need to take back some of the power that in our language was handed over to the government and we can see what happens when we do that,” she said.

As one of the leaders of the student uprising, Mkhabela was jailed by the apartheid regime in 1976 and was only released in 1982 after being “mentally tortured” by being moved to different prisons, among them Pretoria Maximum Prison, Kroonstad in the Free State and another painful stint in Klerksdorp Prison in North West.

Mkhabela stressed that the 1976 uprising was about the youth’s interests but they were serving national interests.

She said the country’s youth of our times must emulate the youth of 1976 and place the interest of the country ahead of their own.

“If young people find themselves being made to be inward-looking, always looking at issues affecting younger people, we deprive them the opportunity of young people before them, the Steve Bikos … who were not standing for the issues of youth, they were standing for national interests,” she said.

After her release from prison, she left the then Transvaal province to study at the University of Zululand in Empangeni. Following the 1994 elections, she found herself working with Nelson Mandela and said she learnt a lot from the global statesman.

Among the lessons she learnt was humility, philanthropy and the spirit of giving, even if you yourself don’t have enough.

Veering into local politics, Mkhabela was critical of the ANC and the way it governs. According to her, there is no difference between President Cyril Ramaphosa and his predecessor, Jacob Zuma, even saying Ramaphosa’s Cabinet looks the same as Zuma’s.

“If we as citizens don’t play our role, and we think that the ANC will one day give us the right president, we will be changing the presidents every day and we will be critiquing them, and we are critiquing the wrong people.

“I don’t know how to judge President Ramaphosa, his Cabinet looks exactly the same as Zuma’s Cabinet, it is as huge as Zuma’s Cabinet.

“We know that this country can move probably with half the Cabinet it has at the present moment. Is it Cyril’s issue? Is it the ANC’s issue? It’s probably the ANC’s issue,” Mkhabela said.

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Political Bureau

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