Witness to uprising: What activists remember about 1976 uprising
June 16 celebrations kicked off
on Saturday with a visit to Angie Mbele, one of many Soweto moms who
provided sanctuary for student
leaders on the run from police during the uprising which left 23 dead and more than 4000 injured.
“We want to honour the many moms who provided accommodation, food and care for many of us after the march,” said Dan Montsitsi,
deputy chairperson of the June 16, 1976 Foundation.
“A number of these women who played an integral part in our lives during the struggle have passed on, some are now elderly and frail, but the foundation wants to meet them to express our gratitude for their
nurturing and taking care of us at a crucial time,” he added.
Montsitsi, who was one of the student leaders at the forefront of the peaceful protest march against Afrikaans as a medium of instruction, said the foundation’s young women’s forum aimed to record the history behind the accommodation provided to Student Representative Council (SRC) members in the aftermath of the protests.
Montsitsi said on Monday the foundation members would distribute 500 hampers of masks and sanitation items to schools in Soweto.
He said the members of the
foundation want to stimulate a culture of learning and teaching, encourage the community to be proud of their schools and be passionate about
education. “All these efforts are aimed at building young leaders,” he said.
Welma Mashinini Redd, the widow of one of the front line leaders of the uprising, Tsietsi Mashinini, told Sunday Independent that June 16 should be an opportunity to learn from the struggle of the past to ensure that students throughout Africa emerge as strong leaders, helping build their communities.
“The lessons of June 16 are relevant for people throughout the continent,” Mashinini Redd said.
Tsietsi died in 1990 in Conakry, the capital of Guinea, on the West Coast. His body was returned to South Africa on August 4,1990 and he was buried at Avalon Cemetery in Soweto where his grave bears the phrase “Black Power”.
“We must take ourselves seriously and build for the future, not produce leaders only concerned with their pockets. Yet today, it’s more about money, but we must instil values, such as good character in our children, so that they behave better towards
society. We owe it to the students of 76 to stop being greedy and reflect a leadership style exhibited during apartheid as servants of the people,” Mashinini Redd said said.
Former politician-turned-academic at the University of Johannesburg, Sydney Mufamadi, former minister of safety and security from 1994 to 1999 and minister of provincial and local government from 1999 to 2008, said the June 16 march ranks alongside the Sharpeville massacre (March 21, 1960 when 69 people were killed) and the death of Steve Biko (September 12, 1977) as key turning points which elevated the struggle to a higher level.
He said the emergence of young leaders injected youthfulness into older members of the movement at a time when they may have appeared jaded.
“I was 17 when I became involved in politics. We started early and sometimes do feel as if we are veterans, but the ANC definition of one is that you must be 60 years and have 40 years of uninterrupted service, I’m only 61,” Mufamadi said.
Asked his recollection of the June 16 uprising, Deputy Minister of Justice and Correctional Services John Jeffery said: “I was 12, living a fairly sheltered life as a white boy in George. I was at school (Outeniqua Primary) on the day, and remember it particularly well, as protests and shooting began, there were lots of responses in terms of anger. There was a lot of fear.”
The deputy minister said one teacher came to school with a shotgun and learners had to go out and collect stones in the event they came under attack.
“Those were my memories which led to questions that started my
political activism, asking why certain human beings are being discriminated against.”
Jeffery said he was privileged as a white boy attending a government school that was better resourced than those for black South Africans. “I benefited and even though I participated in the struggle against apartheid, I’m still privileged. White South Africans have to look at what they can do to put back to build South Africa.”
ANC general manager Febe Potgieter said she was a Grade 3 pupil at Kruisfontein Primary School in Humansdorp, near Jeffery’s Bay, in the Eastern Cape, but she remembers the impact of the Soweto uprising.
“I had an uncle at a teacher training college and older siblings in high school, so one heard about the uprising in Port Elizabeth, listened to the news and parents talking.” Potgieter said the June 16 is a day to remember that “we must never give up the fight for a better education system” so that every school has a library, decent water and sanitation.
“These protests reinforce us as black South Africans, were we come from, which is why #feesmustfall is an echo of the demands made by the 76 generation,” she said.
Journalist Mangaliso Mdhlela said he was visiting a friend Selwyn Talazo, the son of a priest in Alexandria 44 years ago, a day after the uprising.
“The following day I heard that he had been shot and killed. It really changed my life, I left my job and said I need to dedicate my life to the struggle,” Mdhlela said.
In 1976, South Africa’s Ambassador to Italy, Shirish Soni, was a student at ML Sultan Technical College (now Durban University of Technology).
“A few days after the uprising began, students across the country boycotted classes in solidary with our comrades in Soweto. I went from class to class and spoke to the students to walk out of their lectures and join us. We were full of hope and confidence, anger and energy, determination and courage. As we would say in those days we were ‘full of pluck’,” he said.
“We’re grateful to those who sacrificed their education, careers and livelihood to fight in the many battles to end apartheid and racism, but June 16 reminds us that we have to soldier on,” Soni said.
Grade 11 pupil at King’s School Linbro Park Prashirwin Raul (18) said the events of June 16, 1976 are still relevant today as the death of George Floyd at the knee of a racist police officer “shows us that even though apartheid is dead, racism and the belief that someone is lesser than you are still inside us”.
“We must know our history, so we learn from our horrible past, knowing that we can’t sweep all that disgust under the carpet but deal with it for a better future through education,” he said.