/ 16 June 2022

The 1976 Generation is brought into vivid relief

Loaded: Sam Nzima’s photograph is used to officially commemorate the June 16 uprisings and the author argues it has layer upon layer of meaning.
Khulu Mbatha is dismissive of the repetitive annual rhetoric to commemorate 16 June, which he refers to as “myopic and narrow”.  For Mbatha, 16 June 1976 was about far more than where the marches started, who led them, who threw stones or how the police reacted. (Cornell Tukiri/Anadolu Agency)

In his book, Scattered: A Personal Story of the 1976 Generation, Khulu Mbatha weaves the stories of friends, comrades and neighbours into his personal narrative as a youth organiser who left the country at the time of the June 1976 uprising. 

The book is framed by insights into the wider political context in South Africa at the time and upshots of the events of 1976, including exposés of assassinations, suicides, brutality, imprisonment, treachery and betrayal, often described with heart-breaking sincerity. 

Mbatha’s family was relocated from Western Native Township to Rockville in Soweto when he was eight years old. The family was typical of many Soweto families that experienced the impact of politics without discussing it.    

“We had not seen Mandela’s face; we were not told about that generation of leaders. The vacuum that was created between 1960 and 1976 was huge. Before ’76 I had never heard people having discussions about Mandela or Sisulu.  When we were in deep confrontation with the system in 1976, some parents took the risk of saying that there were people who tried to change things years ago and some went to Robben Island and some went into exile.”

In Rockville, bonds were forged that remained important to Mbatha during his time in exile. Years later, he dedicated himself to research to trace and document the arcs of the lives of people he had known. “My mother was a storyteller. She kept records of everything. I think I inherited this from her,” he says.

He organised gatherings of people he grew up with in Rockville and comrades he was with in Magadu, Tanzania. “I knew it was important to keep a record of what we went through; our experiences,” he says. 

Mbatha went to Swaziland first and later to Tanzania, while others went to Botswana and Swaziland. The distance — not only geographically but psychologically and emotionally — between life at home and life in exile was a constant nagging distraction. Some committed suicide because it was too much for them. 

“We didn’t know what the conditions were in exile and we didn’t know the people who led before us. We didn’t have any names and we arrived not knowing anyone.  Those who were with the PAC would tell you the ANC is working with whites and Russia is directing the struggle and those with the ANC would say, don’t waste your time with those PAC people, they don’t know what they are fighting for.” 

It wasn’t an easy task to get people to speak about the past but Mbatha persisted.  

“People made excuses, but I kept on asking questions,” says Mbatha.  

However, interviewing comrades from exile was more challenging. “‘It was difficult to dig out information about what happened in the camps, for example. Questions about who was responsible for a killing were difficult to get answers to. But I was able to put my story together.”

Mbatha is dismissive of the repetitive annual rhetoric to commemorate 16 June, which he refers to as “myopic and narrow”.  For Mbatha, 16 June 1976 was about far more than where the marches started, who led them, who threw stones or how the police reacted. “‘We must look at June 16 in context and try to link it to the efforts of today,” he says.  

“The economic and social problems we have in South Africa today are associated with the changes that took place in 1994, but in 1976, under apartheid there were very different problems and very different solutions,” he says. 

The youth rose up and challenged the system that they had lived under since birth. It was about much more than having the Afrikaans language introduced in township schools, Mbatha explains, adding that it was an explosion waiting to happen for a long time. 

Because the June 1976 uprising was a sudden explosion, the young revolutionaries scattered in all directions and wherever they went, there was chaos, with the ANC and the PAC unprepared to receive them and foreign governments overwhelmed by the influx of revolutionary youth.    

Lamenting what he perceives as the apathy of the youth today, Mbatha observes that “the youth are almost absent from endeavours to address critical issues of the day. Initiatives like Fees Must Fall were an effort by elite students to address some of the issues in education. Their strategy was to pull down statues and burn libraries. What has that got to do with bringing change? Why didn’t they direct their anger at the government and the ANC, which had been in power for 27 years by then? The government is in charge of education.”

Although the youth of 1976 were in many respects naïve, Mbatha says, they knew they were on the right side of history and they maintained their cultural links with people at home. 

The Black Consciousness Movement was the driving ideological force for 1976 Soweto youth. They were angry and militant; many made rash decisions without being well advised. “The youth of today are in an advantageous position of being able to look at issues holistically, but they do the exact opposite of that,” he says.  

When Mbatha and other young exiles finally had political conversations with ANC leaders who had an overview of the struggle, in Tanzania, they were informed that mobilisation was against an unjust system of government; not a fight between black and white.  

They were given a choice between military training and furthering their education.  “This strengthened us and gave us hope,” Mbatha says, adding that for some, though, this hope was not enough.  “Some committed suicide because of longing to come back home and not seeing how this would ever be possible,” he says.

After the unbanning of the ANC, Mbatha and his comrades prepared to return home. The leadership left first and the rank and file members were expected to return individually through amnesty, rather than as a group or organisation. There was considerable anger and dissatisfaction about this.

Although he contemplated going into academia, not long after his return in 1991, Mbatha was co-opted to support the political negotiations from the office of then secretary-general of the ANC, Cyril Ramaphosa. During this hectic but stimulating time, Mbatha was given insight into the experiential differences and misunderstandings between people in the movement.  

For instance, he describes a time when Shell House ran out of funds to pay the staff.  The culture of entitlement was a shock after the experience of exile.

“There were times in Magadu when there was no meat, when there was no rice.  We never complained. We found an alternative .… Back in South Africa, where there was a mixture of people from exile and people from home, we were exposed to quite a different culture and the staff who had not been in exile started to protest. This was new for us,” Mbatha explains.

Ramaphosa contacted Nelson Mandela, who asked George Bizos to come and see him. That evening the two men visited various wealthy Greek businessmen who Bizos knew. By the following morning they had gathered enough funds to keep Shell House afloat.

Mbatha studied in East Germany and later lived in Greece. He speaks both languages. “I always say I was to have lived in the two Gs of Europe — Germany and Greece. They are the direct opposites. Germany gave me the foundation to deal with all aspects of life; to understand what makes society succeed and what leads to state failure. The Greeks are more relaxed and willing to accommodate human failings.”  

While a student at the Friedrich-Schiller University in Jena, Germany, Mbatha met his first wife, Anna, a member of the youth wing of the Communist Party of Greece (KKE). They had a child together and later divorced. 

The book is dedicated to Mbatha’s first two children, both children of Greek mothers, Dimitra Aretha, and Nelson Stefanos.

“I kept contact with my children,” Mbatha says. “I wanted them to know they had a father who loves them. I had obligations to see to their education in Greece.”

Scattered: A Personal Story of the 1976 Generation, R320, will be available in leading book shops throughout the country from 22 June. It is published by KMM Review Publishing Company.