June 16, Youth Day in South Africa, marks the day that the young people of 1976 embarked on a march against being taught in Afrikaans. Supported by the Black Consciousness movement, they carried signs that read “We are not Boers” and “If we must do Afrikaans, then Vorster must do Zulu”. 20, 000 Soweto school children embarked on a peaceful march, despite the fact that when the police arrived to try to stop them, some of the marchers threw stones, while others continued to march. In response to the stones, the police used bullets.
We commemorate the day and look back with gratitude at the actions of those pupils, as the resulting chaos ignited the road to the overthrow of the Apartheid system. The revolt was so intense and so extensive that over 600 people had been killed by the end of that year and the repercussions would be felt all over the world and would culminate with the death of Stephen Bantu Biko at the hands of the police.
The Hector Peterson photograph became a famous reminder of that fateful day.
Our problem in 2014 is that we are fed a version of events puts the ANC in a good light, despite the fact that a casual reading of history dictates otherwise. The ANC was not even remotely involved in these events – the organisation was banned from South Africa by the then government and they had no bearing on the events that took place. The resurgence of the ANC owes more than they are willing to admit to the 1976 uprisings and the preceding fallout, as many young people fled the country, others studying elsewhere while some joined the ranks of the ANC in exile.
What is most unfortunate is that the celebrations planned for June 16 bear little reflection of the country and are mostly positioned to make the ANC look good because “they brought us democracy”. Since history is written by the ‘victors’, one should not be surprised that children are not taught the depth and breadth of the liberation struggle and about the many other leaders who were not ANC members who made a difference.
If we continue to promote this kind of history at the expense of the truth, we will end up with students and leaders who have no true understanding of what it took to bring democracy to this country. And the continued exclusion of youth from all races from understanding and embracing this history will continue to mark us as a racially divided nation.
Watch your screens carefully – it will be a very rare sight to see a government organised youth day event that includes a large number of non-black people in the crowd, artists of varied genres of music, officials who give credit where it is due and those on stage actually talking to the people and not at them.