Liberation before education

2012-01-07 09:10

If it was the year that focused the world’s attention on South Africa’s apartheid policies, it was the youth generation that sowed the seeds of a revolution that matured into a democracy 18 years later.

The Soweto uprisings in 1976, which saw 20 000 scholars take to the streets, was sparked by fury over a 1974 government policy that forced black high schools to adopt Afrikaans, not only English, as a medium of instruction.

At the time the Nationalist government budgeted R42 a year for the education of a black child, while the figure was R644 for each white child.

The 19-year-old Tsietsi Mashinini, the charismatic leader of the South African Students’ Movement (SASM) at Soweto’s Morris Isaacson High School, led the charge.

It started peacefully with children singing Nkosi Sikilel’ iAfrika, but as police opened fire, hundreds of children were killed and wounded.

Twelve-year-old Hector Pietersen was among the dead, and Sam Nzima’s photograph of him being carried, bleeding, from the scene, shocked the world.

This was a revolution propelled by teenagers: youth who kept their plans secret from their parents and teachers because they were considered too subservient to the apartheid regime.

But inspired by their childrens’ example, many adults followed where they led.

The riots were led by the ANC-aligned SASM and the Black Consciousness-minded South African Students’ Organisation spearheaded by Steve Biko (who was tortured and killed in jail in 1977).

Lines between the political organisations were blurred to such an extent that both the ANC and Azapo claimed Mashinini’s body when it was returned 14 years later from Guinea, where he was in exile and where he died a still unexplained death.

One of Mashinini’s schoolmates at Morris Isaacson and a fellow SASM leader was Murphy Morobe, now chief executive of Kagiso Media. Morobe, then 20, took part in the uprising as an ANC supporter.

“Liberation before education” became the rallying cry.

1976 was a dangerous time to be young and living in the townships – security police were everywhere and every child was suspect.

Still, young people managed to attend political education classes after finishing their homework, gathering in small groups of three to five people, to avoid detection.

It was in these cells that the students networked and made plans for the protests.

“The risk was so high, being careless could get you killed,” says Morobe, who was subsequently jailed on Robben Island for his part in the uprisings. People were sent parcel bombs, many died in jail”.

Membership of church organisations, playing soccer and listening to Winston Mankunku, Pops Mohamed and Babsy Mlangeni gave young activists a semblance of a normal life.

Poetry was read at political gatherings and the 1970s saw a revival of black voices with writers like Mongane Wally Serote, Christopher van Wyk and Don Mattera coming to the fore.

The wildly popular Sipho “Hotstix” Mabuse and his band The Beaters were known to smuggle youngsters across the border into exile – by hiding them in their amplifier cases and drum kits.

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