There’s a vacuum in the writing and telling of the story of June 16
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The narrative of the 16 June 1976 student uprisings stands the risk of being appropriated because we do not tell our own stories, enough, and factually.
Wednesday marks the 45th anniversary of the watershed event when unarmed schoolchildren faced the might of the apartheid artillery head-on, resulting in close to 200 deaths.
If it is common knowledge that 69 people died in Sharpeville in March 1960 and that the blight of Marikana in post-apartheid South Africa claimed 44 lives, why the uncertainty and equivocation about how many children actually died in 1976?
Love them or hate them, one thing you will not do is ignore the Americans – because they tell their stories, often embellishing them at whim.
The story of the black Civil Rights movement in the US, from the marches on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, to Malcolm X and Medgar Evers, as but a part of the African-American history, is watertight. Told and retold.
Uncle Sam even uses Hollywood to lie about their showing in Vietnam.
The bottom line is that, when it comes to telling their stories, the Americans knuckle down to business, and do not outsource the task.
Not so with South Africa and June 16.
Why is Hastings Ndlovu, 15, the boy widely believed to be the first casualty of the police on that day such a footnote of history?
This should be measured against the prominence of Hector Pieterson, the poster-boy of 1976.
Antoinette Sithole, Hector’s sister who was photographed running alongside Mbuyisa Makhubo. The older man - Makhubo - carrying the nearly lifeless body of the 14 year-old victim in his arms in the world-acclaimed Sam Nzima photograph, is virtually a sound-box turned up only on every anniversary.
When she died in the early 2000s, Makhubo’s mother had stopped giving media interviews because of her aversion to being remembered only on the commemoration of the uprisings.
Her story, the story of June 16, lives only in the video cameras of foreign tourists.
There is such a vacuum in the writing and telling of the story of June 16, that someone like Sifiso Mxolisi Ndlovu, then a 14-year-old pupil at Phefeni Junior Secondary School, has gone on to write a book titled “The Soweto Uprisings: Counter Memories of June 1976”.
There are no prizes for guessing why Ndlovu felt the need to provide a “counter-memory” of the day the pupils marched in protest against the use of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction.
Granted, in the book he dispels the generally accepted views, among others, that the uprisings were spontaneous and that there were bigger political players and student organisations behind the uprisings.
This is known but needs a chorus and multiplicity of voices to tell it.
Enos Ngutshane says: “I can agree with you when you say most of the writers distort the facts for their own individual interests.”
But he disagrees that there is a dearth of literature: “There is a lot that has been written about June 16.”
He adds further: “There is a narrative that tends to isolate the role played by higher primary schools and junior secondary schools. Schools such as the Belle Higher Primary, Emthonjeni Higher Primary, Thulasizwe Higher Primary, Daliwonga Secondary, Phefeni Junior Secondary and Thomas Mofolo High School, followed the trend-setters.
“Primary schools were out in the streets as early as February 1976. High schools such as Naledi High and Morris Isaacson came late into the picture. There is a number of genuine class of ’76 students who have not written anything. Most of them are still alive and active in different community structures.”
But he concedes that “telling our own stories” is a task that cannot only be confined to books.
Ngutshane, a student at Naledi High at the time, was arrested on June 8 1976 by the notorious Special Branch police.
His sin was to write a letter to the then apartheid Bantu Education Minister, “that as students of Soweto, we vehemently refuse to be taught in Afrikaans”.
On the day of his arrest at the school, fellow students retaliated and defended one of their own, “burning down the police vehicle, resulting in the policemen hiding in the Principal’s office.”
It is worth noting that it was actually Sibongile Mkhabela, a student leader at the time, who set a tennis ball alight and threw it at the police van. She is known for her famous words, “Comrades leave the country; I will continue to keep the fire burning.”
Ngutshane was due in court on June 16, 1976, since his arrest a few weeks earlier.
“Today, June 8 2021, as we salute the generation of 1976 and their contributions to the liberation struggle, we are also intensifying the campaign to capture the real and untold story of 1976, with more emphasis on the strategic marginalisation of the role of Naledi in the entire narrative. We shall never forget.”
Dennis Mashabela is the son of Harry Mashabela, the late veteran journalist who penned the book “A People On The Boil: Reflections on June 16”.
Dennis says: “We can never write enough about June 16 and the turning point it meant for our lives. But more than stories, we need deep reflection on June 16 and similar moments. We need to use memory and reflection to spur a new civic re-engagement with our deteriorating socio-economic condition and arrest the capture of our society by a selfish, self-centred predatory political leadership – sorely preoccupied with stealing us to death. We need to look on June 16 and use the same resolve to give focus to spontaneous service delivery protests – pushing back against a rapacious state.”
ANC NEC member Nomvula Mokonyane comes from a family of student activists. She is mindful of the leadership role played by the youth of 1976 who she thinks followed in the footsteps of “the pioneers of our liberation struggle who were also young, [but] in their 30s”.
While she concedes that June 16 has not been documented well, Mokonyane credits those who came before the 1976 generation with the foresight to capture their stories, meticulously, “people like Sol Plaatje, the Mdas, the Sobukwes – they were very thorough”.
She puts blame on the quest for reconciliation and party politics in diluting the narrative of June 16. “You cannot deny the role of Black Consciousness in 1976 and of the PAC in Sharpeville,” Mokonyane says.