LEST WE FORGET: School children re-enact the 1976 Soweto uprising when apartheid police opened fire on pupils protesting against the use of Afrikaans as the medium of instruction in schools. Picture: Themba Hadebe / AP

JUNE 16, 1976, is a day we must never expunge from the collective memory of South Africans. It must be a day on which we measure our progress as a nation against all that the 1976 generation stood against. Instead of it being a day for national mourning or entertainment, it ought to be a day when we resolutely endorse ourselves to essences of the uprising.

Wretchedly the real story of 1976 is escaping our collective recall. Steadily we are forgetting that the real story was about an intangible cultural heritage: our languages. It is still mind-boggling how such a young generation could stand up and be counted, with a simple demand that we, too, are people; we have our diverse cultures and our languages are relatable carriers of our culture. This was the real story of June 16. It is a story of immeasurable proportions about young people who gave their lives to the idea of one country, one nation. So determined were these young guns to see a liberated country with freedom of association, religion and equity of languages, they laid down their lives for us.

The question we must then ask is: have we done enough or are we taking nation building and social cohesion seriously to enable us to say we are truly appreciative of the contribution made by the martyrs of 1976, led by Tsietsi Mashinini?

Yes, we have 11 official languages and we have a language board established through the constitution. But are we sufficiently using our languages as languages of communication in government? With all the interpreting services available in our national Parliament, are we doing justice to the class of 1976 by speaking only in English, to the detriment of our indigenous languages? For our young people to aspire to know their languages they need to see important people speaking them. Imagine our number one citizen speaking in Zulu at the UN General Assembly.

This will be such an important contributor to changing the perception that our languages are not languages of business. Brazil and Iran speak in their languages in such forums and it has not stopped us from taking them seriously. Imagine if our Parliament was truly multilingual. This would change the language situation in our country.

Imagine a country (as proposed by the minister of higher education) where you need to study and speak at least one indigenous language to graduate.

Imagine we extend this to employment in the public service. We will give value to our languages; no one will afford not to take them seriously. Our parents, who in the main are guilty of perpetuating the myth that their children need to speak English to be a somebody, would be instantly liberated from the yoke of mental oppression that they carry on their shoulders.

The few who know the value of languages are faced with the reality that more often the schools that offer indigenous languages are in the township and are not in a good condition.

Thus, our languages are associated with dilapidated and badly managed schools, which are under-resourced and where the teaching is of a poor quality. This stigmatises our languages and discourages parents from sending their children to those schools. We owe it to the class of 1976 to liberate our parents from this mentality by eliminating all obstacles in order for them to make informed decisions.

We need to up the game in training our teachers and paying them appropriate salaries, and in fostering quality teaching in all of our schools so that parents can decide in which language their children should to be taught without considering side issues such as infrastructure and resources.

The sooner we restore the real story about June 16, 1976, the better. The real story was about giving space to our languages to coexist with others. June 16 is a story of liberation from the perspective of an intangible heritage; our languages. While it is important for us as a country to attend to pressing issues such as employment and economic empowerment of the youth, there is no replacement for pride and the ability for one to be valued as complete beings while speaking one’s own language.

This is the story of June 16. It is recognition that even if all chains can be broken and all jobs created, if psychological oppression and the mental chains remain, then we are still oppressed.

We need to devote this celebration of June 16 to recommitting ourselves to the real story. Our children must not starve, they must be given a quality education, there must be opportunities for employment and entrepreneurship, but above all we must free them to be who they ought to be and to speak their languages without the limits that we now place on them with side issues.

If we do not rise as a people and be positive symbols to the youth of today, what would entitle us to call them “a lost generation”? They cannot be lost when they are merely emulating us. It is us who are lost. We can use this June 16 to say it is enough. We can start by giving space to our languages and by having pride in what we do. We need to reject all forms of mediocrity. Our pride is a personal commitment. It is an attitude that will separate excellence from mediocrity. If not, then may the ghost of Mashinini live long to haunt us.

l Chris Swepu is the acting chief executive officer of the Pan South African Language Board, writing in his personal capacity.