'We didn't burn schools,' Zuma and 1976 activist tell Youth Day crowd

Vhudzani Secondary School is one of about 50 schools that were burnt or vandalised in Vuwani, Limpopo, during protests earlier this year. (Oupa Nkosi, M&G)

Vhudzani Secondary School is one of about 50 schools that were burnt or vandalised in Vuwani, Limpopo, during protests earlier this year. (Oupa Nkosi, M&G)

“We were dodging bullets and teargas, we burnt beer halls but we never burnt schools,” said Deputy Chairperson of the June 16 1976 Foundation, Dan Montsitsi, on Thursday, sending a stern warning to today’s youth on the dangers of burning schools.

Montsitsi, one of the student leaders who organised the student uprising of 1976, said government needed to create new legislation against the burning of schools.

“We burnt a number of buildings out of anger and those buildings, we believed they deserved to be burnt,” he said.

“We burnt most of the beer halls throughout Soweto, and all administration board offices. No single school was burnt in 1976 because if you were to burn schools, which classroom would you be studying in?

“Each and every student was hell bent on defending their classrooms. Classrooms were never ever torched.”

President Jacob Zuma shared this sentiment when he addressed a crowd at Orlando Stadium in Soweto to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the June 16 uprising.

“Not a single school was burnt during 1976. The conduct we see today is unacceptable. Why destroy schools? Where are children supposed to go after that? There is something wrong with us. We cannot say there’s something sober about such actions,” Zuma said.

He said destroying clinics, trains and factories during protests for service delivery was not helpful.

“We need to discuss this as a country, sit down, talk about this and discourage it. Resources that are meant to bring development are diverted to rebuild all that has been destroyed. These acts indicate that we are going astray,” he said.

He said, however, that the struggle for opportunities and better lives for all continued, and that the sacrifices of the class of 1976 were not in vain because the apartheid regime was defeated.

”Race no longer determines where one lives or where one goes to school or church, or what work one can do. Black people no longer have to carry passes or seek permits to live and work in urban areas.”

Montsitsi said today’s youth were reminiscent of the 1976 generation.

“The youth will always remind you to move a little bit faster so we applaud them for maintaining this militancy and energy.”

He said government should caution against tampering with the militancy of the youth.

“We also wish to indicate that youth left by themselves would sometimes be prone to acts of anarchy. At all material times there should be elders to guide them but not tamper with the militancy.”

Thursday marked 40 years after the June 16 uprising by students against Afrikaans as a medium of instructions at black schools.

The uprising began in Soweto and then spread countrywide in 1976. Students in Soweto had planned to meet at Orlando Stadium on the day and embark on a peaceful march to education authorities, when they were confronted by police who ordered them to disperse.

They refused to disperse and threw stones at the police who then opened fire, killing and injuring some of the youngsters.

Pieterson, after whom the Soweto memorial was named, was the youngest victim killed during the uprising. The iconic photograph – taken by photojournalist Sam Nzima – of the 12-year-old Pieterson, carried by Muyisa Makhubo with Pieterson’s sister Antoinette Sithole running alongside him, became a worldwide symbol of the students uprising and their struggle against the apartheid regime and education system. – African News Agency and News24

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