'Let the past be the past'

Learners from Morris Isaacson High School are streaming down Mputhi Street on a Wednesday afternoon in June.

They walk in groups and carry book bags. But there’s no fight in their eyes.
There’s no chanting, no slogans. These learners are not marching for freedom, but trudging home after a tough day of exams.

It was 33 years ago, on June 16 1976, that Tsietsi Mashinini, one of Morris Isaacson’s most famous sons, interrupted the school assembly and led his classmates on a march that changed the country forever.

Today it’s commemorated by a mosaic memorial just outside the school grounds.The mosaic maps out of school,” Monareng says. ‘If people are dropping out, how are we going to progress as a country?”

Of course, these learners are acutely aware of their school’s historic past and the events of June 16, but they seem to have no special connection with it. ‘When we look at the things that we do today they somehow don’t relate to what they did in the past,” says learner Kamogelo Ngoako.

Sandile Mkhize chips in. ‘I once did Afrikaans,” he tells the others. ‘And I saw why they eradicated the whole idea of having [it] in our schools.” The classroom bursts out in giggles.

Even the elders who remember the days of struggle feel disconnected. ‘I know this grandfather, he lives on the same street as me at Central,” says Thapelo Mopailo. ‘He used to be one of the students in the 1976 uprising. He likes to say: ‘Let the past be the past.”

The learners say they are waging a different kind of struggle. ‘I’m fighting against poverty. I’m fighting for my family to become better because we all want to live the high-class life,” says Bongani Ngwenya.

This is all too evident in their career choices. None of the learners we spoke to plans to go into politics.

The new generation of Morris Isaacson matrics plans to be accountants, lawyers, filmmakers and authors. ‘What are we fighting against right now?” asks Sandile Mkhize. ‘They say the war never ends, it just changes colour.” For him, HIV/Aids is the biggest threat to the country.

Mkhize says he knows he cannot influence the actions of others, but hopes to set an example. ‘I made it through matric without conceiving a child. Maybe that is at least doing something.”

Although all 11 of the learners we spoke to were eligible to vote this year, only two of them did so.

Sibusiso Bhongopule believes political parties have been too critical of the youth and failed to reach out to them. ‘The [political parties] are focused on older people,” Bhongopule says. ‘That’s why I didn’t vote.” He feels young people should be better represented in politics.

‘Someone such as Nelson Mandela [can’t] represent the youth, because he doesn’t know anything about the youth.” But are these attitudes cause for concern? Aren’t these just kids
being kids?

Struggle veteran Seth Mazibuko doesn’t think so. Mazibuko, now chief executive of the June 16th 1976 Foundation, was Tsietsi Mashinini’s second-in-command. At 16 he was arrested and sentenced to five years on Robben Island.

Looking back, he sometimes feels guilty about the young lives that were lost. ‘I led them out of the class gates that day. Hector Pietersen’s mother is now missing a child.”

Mazibuko believes it’s unrealistic to expect today’s young people to be highly politicised. ‘The challenges of 1976 were totally different to those of 2009. A 16-year-old now can be excited about the World Cup,” he says. ‘We wanted liberation from an education system.

The youth of 1976 were throwing stones—now the youth must gather the stones for the reconstruction of South Africa.”

Faranaaz Parker

Faranaaz Parker

Faranaaz Parker is a reporter for the Mail & Guardian. She writes on everything from pop science to public health, and believes South Africa needs carbon taxes and more raging feminists. When she isn't instagramming pictures of her toddler or obsessively checking her Twitter, she plays third-person shooters on Xbox Live.
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