Remembering Roger

2009-06-15 00:00

I was nowhere near Soweto on 16 June 1976, nor was I at school, yet it is a day that changed my life. I never understood how or why until more than 30 years later when a University of KwaZulu-Natal student, who hadn’t even been born in 1976, asked a question at a seminar.

I was at Rhodes University when the June ’76 student uprising took place. A fact not adequately documented is that the Nationalist party first introduced its plan for lessons to be taught in Afrikaans at black schools in the Eastern Cape. This happened around the end of March. There were classroom revolts by students who could not conceive having to be taught subjects like maths and science in a third language they barely spoke.

In Grahamstown, the local high school expelled a large number of students who were marked as the ringleaders. I’m not sure how it happened, whether it was the expelled students themselves or through a local church, but classes were arranged so that they could keep up with their lessons. I was one of the volunteer teachers and we taught at St Aidan’s — a former boy’s school run by the Jesuits, which had closed down. Over the months, those of us involved in the voluntary teaching programme bonded with our students. I often felt I learnt more from them than they learnt from me. I was impressed by their level of maturity and realised how my sheltered upbringing had left me so naive about life’s harsh realities.

On June 16, 1976, I finished my lectures at lunch-time and was due to teach a geography class that afternoon. My housemate had the radio on and we listened to the news about the startling developments in Soweto. Somehow those events seemed so remote from our small-town existence.

I went off to my lesson to be greeted by an empty classroom and the news that the security police had rounded up our students. This was an attempt to get the “ringleaders” out of the way to prevent the formation of local protests. History shows how ineffective this was as the student uprising spread like wildfire across the country.

Little did any of us standing in the grounds of St Aidan’s that afternoon realise how our lives would change and that we would spend the next few months looking for children.

We had no idea where our own students were being held by the security police and in the following weeks there were constant stories of more school children missing. In these fearful, confusing times, a lifeline came from those unsung heroines of the Black Sash who worked tirelessly trying to trace the whereabouts of the students. They located many in police cells in Port Elizabeth and further away. The Sash organised for clothes and food parcels to be taken to the detainees, and for those of us who stood helplessly on the sidelines our only contribution seemed to be to donate and help pack the parcels.

I met so many weeping mothers and fearful siblings during this time. We all lived in a state of limbo, our emotions swinging from one wild extreme to the other. There was deep, abiding fear, anger with no release, a devastating sadness and occasional joy when a child was located.

Three months later some of our students were released; others were kept longer. Some were sent away by their parents to rural schools; others never returned to school and became part of what is known as the lost generation. Our classes, under constant surveillance by the security police, had to be suspended. There were still many students missing and it was only later that I learnt that they had left the country to join the liberation struggle. The ANC’s own literature documents the wave of young people that crossed the borders to join their ranks in 1976. One of them was a bright, enthusiastic 15-year-old member of my class. His name was Roger Faltein.

Years later I read a news report about three MK soldiers killed in a skirmish with the police in New Brighton township in Port Elizabeth. One of the people killed was Roger. All he wanted was to be a good scholar and maybe become a teacher one day. He ended up becoming a soldier.

So what did that UKZN student ask at that seminar on South Africa’s fledgeling democracy that stirred up buried memories.

“So much is being said about allaying white fears,” she said, “but when are we going to address black anger?”

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