The June 16 1976 uprising was a series of protests by black pupils in response to the Afrikaans-medium decree of 1974. For the government dominated by Afrikaners, the decree was yet another instrument to reinforce their prestige through language. Therefore, the purpose of the uprising was twofold: a protest against Afrikaans, and what it represented, and a demand for quality education.
It was not a fight for the use of the pupils’ own mother tongues in their education but rather that they preferred English over Afrikaans. They did not see their own languages as useful languages of learning beyond the early grades.
The National Party’s attempts to dominate black people was a continuation of a white supremacist ideology, which was an iteration of colonialism that influenced the rest of the continent. As result, some African countries still consider the language of their former colonisers to be more important than their own African languages. The only African country that has managed to end the echoes of the past is Rwanda: in 2008 the country dropped French as an official language as a sign and action towards embracing its new political era.
In South Africa, as a manifestation of moving forward and building a new country, we have accepted and coexisted with the languages of the former colonisers.
This history lesson has implications for our current context. The policies of the past have a generational effect and inform where we are right now. When a policy reform is introduced, it takes at least a full generation of implementation to see the real results. The same pupils who marched down the streets of Orlando became the parents who queued in 1991 to enroll their children in desegregated white schools. If they could not afford it, they still envied those black parents who were able to take their children to the so-called model C schools. The pupils who raised their fists against Bantu education 42 years ago are the grandparents who take so much pride in how well their grandchildren speak English with such a beautiful accent.
The biggest question now is what happened between June 1976 and present-day South Africa? The student protests calling for a free and decolonised education system begin to answer this question; the children of the “Young Lions” are saying a Anglocentric education is not enough. Born-frees were calling for #AfrikaansMustFall at the University of Pretoria and University of Free State and #OpenStellenbosch set a precedent for the language demands in higher education institutions.
It took a generation of born-frees to speak up and say we want to learn in African languages. If it takes those born between 1994 and 1997 to raise their grievances, who is speaking for those who are in primary schools right now?
Academics have recently been writing about the Progress in International Reading Literacy (Pirls) 2016 results. Debates have ensued about how valid and reliable these results are and, additionally, how dysfunctional the education system is as a whole and that the issue is not simply a literacy crisis.
The Pirls results posit that black children cannot read for meaning. This outcome is consistent with the Pirls results from 2006 and 2011. Together with the Pirls results, the annual national assessments are the closest South Africa got to its own large-scale assessments. It showed that children in former Afrikaans and English schools are outperforming their peers who attend poorly resourced schools.
After 42 years of celebrating June 16 as a political turning point, it is an event that should remind us of the ultimate goal of striving for equality in education. But we still have schools that resemble the patterns of a segregated South Africa. We have schools that have Afrikaans as the language of teaching and learning across all subjects until grade 12 but African languages are taught only as a subject until grade 12. Although the advantages of being able to speak English cannot be disputed, the question remains: Why do our African languages not enjoy the same prestige as English and Afrikaans in this country?
There are enough countries that have shown that multilingualism is possible. An education system that does not prioritise the primary language of the poor black child is an anti-black and anti-poor education system that does not provide these children with the skills they need for the fourth industrial revolution.
What does this tell us about how we need to think about the future of education in South Africa? In particular, what does the future hold for poor black children whose languages are marginalised? Without a long-term strategy for addressing the current literacy and language conundrum, we are likely to remain in the same position in the future.
Countries that have addressed illiteracy have garnered multistakeholder support with a long-term view of an education policy that has a generational approach. Although the initiatives of the past 24 years have made an attempt to deal with a fraught education system, the pattern of moving from one initiative to another is evidence that ours is not an education system that considers the generational effect.
What would it mean to think about South Africa’s education system in terms of generations?
By establishing a literacy coalition that will embark on a long-term multistakeholder process, it may be possible to work towards foundation-phase literacy in our lifetime. Focusing on the foundation phase will have implications for how we think about the intermediate and senior phases, as well as post-school support for all children.
The dream for an equal education is not a pie-in-the-sky idea. An equal education requires the kind of collaboration that allows people with differing views to sit in the same room because they believe in the same goal: a literate generation of children who can participate meaningfully in a fast-changing world.
An equal education that does not compromise the identity and sense of being of the African child requires a generational lens and that imagines the future beyond the next five years.
Nangamso Mtsatse lectures at Unisa. Athambile Masola is a lecturer at the University of Pretoria and a co-founder of the literacy coalition, Literacy in Our Lifetime