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Class of ’76 weeps for the past – and the present

For one who was at the coal face of the Soweto student march on June 16 1976, when I reminisce about that Wednesday, I battle to block tears from welling up like a river behind my eyes.

Any regrets for dismantling Afrikaans as a medium of instruction for content subjects in our schools? Not at all. I am proud to have been part of that generation of Soweto students, who with nothing more than stones, bricks and garbage lids, brought the repressive apartheid government to its knees.

Consequent to our relentless war against the might of the then fully resourced oppressive police and defence forces, who with their heavy machine guns mowed down some of our fellow students, even though we were in school uniforms, the nations of the world, as states party to the United Nations, declared apartheid a crime against humanity on July 18 (former president Nelson Mandela’s birthday) 1977.

But the apartheid government still showed the UN the middle finger, just 43 days after the declaration of the apartheid Convention by the UN, by murdering one of our leading voices against apartheid, Bantu Steve Biko.

So determined was the Soweto Class of 1976, together with all the other oppressed young people who had joined us in our quest to free South Africa from apartheid bondage, that the apartheid security forces failed dismally to deter us from forging ahead with our just cause for quality education and a democratic South Africa.

Eighteen years later, after our nonstop rebellion against apartheid government misrule, it was full of feeling to witness the election of Madiba in Parliament on May 9 1994 as the first democratically elected president of a South Africa. Today, I still hear the voices of two distinguished freedom fighters who nominated and seconded him respectively on that day, Mama Albertina Sisulu and now the current President Cyril Ramaphosa.

I felt that my fellow students who paid the supreme price, death in 1976, and those thereafter didn’t sacrifice their lives in vain. Of course, the struggle for our freedom was not only waged by the youth of 1976, but also by the many freedom fighters who lit the fire in us.

We defeated apartheid bantu education early in our struggle for quality education and the use of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction was stillborn because of our determination.

My profound concern is that, 42 years since that fateful period — and we, the then lions of the 1976 generation, are ageing and most of us have reached the 60-year mark — the black child still is confronted with many challenges at school.

Learners face obstacles of a different kind. Drugs are a problem today, even as they were during my time, but the degree of the problem is obviously different. Many young students of my era were in the grip of dagga and alcohol but today many dangerous drugs are readily available to learners.

Compounding today’s learners’ problems is that too little investment was made — and still isn’t being made — in the infrastructure of our schools in Soweto and in all other townships. But learners in the rural areas of our country are the hardest hit, having to learn under conditions that in some instances border on violating their constitutional rights to dignity.

In 2014, a six-year-old learner, Michael Komape, drowned in faeces in a school pit toilet in a village in Limpopo. Four years later, in March 2018, in Bizana in the Eastern Cape, five-year-old learner Viwe Jali died in a similar way. Occurrences of this nature — young learners who die undignified deaths in our democratic dispensation — make me bleed to no end.

I appreciate that our sacrifice is recognised and celebrated in various ways every year. But have these celebrations just become a by-the-way tradition, where we go to rallies, old geysers who wear uniforms in remembrance of June 16 1976 and walk a few steps and pretend to emulate the class of Soweto 1976?

I submit that perhaps these celebrations could be used to greater effect if we were to score ourselves on this day to see if we can say without fear of contradiction that the schools in Soweto, in the other townships and in the rural areas in particular can compete equally in terms of infrastructure with schools in the previously advantaged white schools during apartheid.

The Tshilidzi Lower Primary where I commenced my sub A in 1964, the Mambo Higher Primary School where I did my higher primary education, and the Sekano Ntoane High School where I said no to Afrikaans as a medium of instruction in 1976, all these schools in terms of infrastructural investment since the advent of our democracy haven’t improved much.

Neither have Musi High in Pimville, Madibane in Diepkloof, Orlando West High, Orlando High, Meadowlands High, Morris Isaacson and Naledi High. They are all more or less in the same state as Sekano Ntoane. And these were the seven high schools in Soweto that marshalled the 1976 Soweto students uprisings.

Wouldn’t it be a great idea, when we celebrate the June 16 cohorts, to commit ourselves as a country to see that all schools in the townships and rural areas receive a massive infrastructural investment so that many of our learners in these areas don’t have to commute daily to far-flung former previously advantaged white model C schools in cities like Johannesburg to get a decent education?

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