Guest Column

What was June 16 for?

2017-06-18 05:53
Colors Of Heaven, a film inspired by the June 16 1976 uprising. Picture: Screengrab/YouTube

Colors Of Heaven, a film inspired by the June 16 1976 uprising. Picture: Screengrab/YouTube

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Julian Kunnie

A few months ago, I watched a film dramatising the 1976 Soweto insurrection titled Colors of Heaven, released on Netflix in the US and formerly titled A Million Colors.

The film appeared to be very interesting and illustrative until a point when the main character, Muntu Ndebele, played by Wandile Molebatsi, expresses his aspirations for a future South Africa in a conversation at his family home in Soweto, stating that he plans on being deputy prime minister in a government headed by Norman Cox – a close friend of Ndebele’s, played by Jason Hartman.

That’s when I lost any serious interest I had in the film, notwithstanding the accolades it has received in South Africa, Europe and Hollywood. Many would take issue with my critique of the movie, but the point needs to be clearly made, particularly in view of the 41st anniversary of the Soweto insurrection – an event that marked a radical turning point in the South African liberation struggle.

The sacrifice of more than a thousand black teens with their lives; the forced exiling of the principal leaders of the uprising, Tsietsi Mashinini, Barney Mokgatle and Selby Semela, along with thousands of other activists from Soweto; the accompanying black consciousness movement engineered by iconic political titan Steven Bantu Biko and the resultant groundswell of black resistance to apartheid repression propelled the country towards the first democratically elected black majority government in 1994. If it wasn’t for these black teens, South Africa would still be living under the tyranny of violent white minority rule.

Catastrophically, the recognition of the foundational contributions of oppressed black youth and the memory of the deaths of thousands of young people in the protracted struggle for liberation has been whittled away over the years.

The core symbolism of Soweto and its association with the radical fringe of the liberation movement has been swept under the carpet, evidenced in the very perfunctory commemorations and government-sponsored events held around this time.

Very few want to remember the blood shed by the youth of Soweto and other townships and rural communities all over the country – Alexandra, Sebokeng, Katlehong, Mangaung, KwaMashu, Imbali, Khayelitsha, Mitchells Plain, New Brighton, Zwide, KwaZakhele, Mamelodi and so many others – where black people continue to live in dilapidated houses and shacks with poor sanitation, pot-holed streets, dim lighting, run-down schools and marginal public services and amenities in 2017, while white affluence and paltry black elitism is being enforced in the plush suburbs of the country’s major cities.

A Eurocentric bias

We have learnt nothing from history, theosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti laments, because we continue and increasingly engage in violence, wars, exploitation, plunder, selfishness, greed, and dispossession – even though we as humans claim we are different from other animals because we are cultured and have intelligence and language.

The entrenchment of structures of black impoverishment and white elitist privilege continues unabated, principally because we continue to live in a colonially-driven, globalised and capitalist world in which what is white and associated with Europe and money is considered valuable. Correspondingly, what is black and indigenous African in essence is viewed as anathema, unstable, unviable and unsustainable.

Consider the press coverage of various issues within South Africa and the rest of Africa within “mainstream” media. Generally, the media reflects a Eurocentric bias in which Africa is viewed as a haven of irrepressible violence, instability and social decay; akin to colonial depictions of the African continent and black people in general as “savage” and “uncivilised”.

Little reference is made to the historical legacies of colonisation, slavery and capitalism that have driven indigenous African and other cultures socially and economically to the margins of Western globalised hegemony through linguacide and ethnocide. For instance, regardless of the political and historical complexities within neighbouring Zimbabwe, the legitimate attempt to redistribute dispossessed indigenous African lands is viewed as repressive and groups representing the landless, dispossessed and homeless, such as Abahlali baseMjondolo, are continually portrayed as illegitimate.

How did indigenous Africans and their descendants dispossessed by European colonialists from the mid-17th century to the present come to be described normatively as “squatters” and “illegal” in the land of their ancestors and birth? Essentially, such terms reflect colonialist ideology, and for these terms to be used in an African country that made world history in resisting oppression and racism is shameful. They underscore the extent to which European colonialist and capitalist brainwashing has become suffused with the South African (and by extension African) reality.

Small wonder then that indigenous African languages being introduced and reproduced normatively within educational, social and economic circles in South Africa is hardly real. We are reminded that “English” is associated with prosperity and thus must be retained as the central language of economics, politics and education.

Indigenous African languages that are valorised, institutionalised and normalised within South Africa will keep Africans “in the bush”, as one respondent to an article emailed me some years ago.

The problem with Ndebele’s statement about becoming deputy prime minister to a white prime minister in Colors of Heaven is part of the fundamental problem that post-apartheid South Africa continues to experience well into this second decade of the 21st century: black people need to be held in tutelage to white supremacy at all levels because whites know best, including in a film.

White leadership with a black face

While it is indisputable that there are genuine relationships between blacks and whites in South Africa and that there are many whites who veritably support social justice for black people, the fact of the matter is that the country remains under white leadership with “a black face”, a precondition for political, economic and social “stability”. This was the compromise that the ANC accepted when negotiating with the apartheid regime in the 1980s and into the early 1990s: that white economic and social privilege and illegitimate ownership of the bulk of the land would remain virtually intact, while a black government would convey the semblance of political power through the “democratic process” heavily determined by Eurocentric and Anglo-American capital which owns the bulk of South’s Africa industrial, mineral and monetary wealth.

It’s not that white production of films on Africa has no moral basis; the problem is that virtually all of these productions view Africa through the lens of white supremacy, with whites generally being “director” and black people following a white script. Richard Attenborough’s film on Steve Biko, Cry Freedom, for instance, falls fully under this critique. Much of that film chronicles the adventures of Donald Woods after the killing of Biko by apartheid police in the last third of the film.

South Africans are constantly told that June 16, now called Youth Day (and conveniently changed from Soweto Day, most likely because it would stir up memories of the violence of apartheid against the black youth of Soweto and thus aggravate racial antagonisms between blacks and whites), is a day to remember the youth of South Africa.

Ironically, there are hundreds of thousands of homeless children classified as “street children” who are exploited sexually and economically even while Youth Day is celebrated. The majority of the black community, often young people, that is denied the right to well-funded public education and healthcare is part of the 80% that remains impoverished, while a minority, predominantly white, sprinkled with a fringe black elite, sends its children to well-funded public and private schools and receives privatised healthcare.

Shifting our gaze to Africa

Why are blacks constantly told to play second fiddle in a country and continent that is overwhelmingly black, like in Colors of Heaven? Why is black dependence on white leadership and illicit ownership of the land, economy, finances and culture so pervasive in 2017?

These questions are not raised to instigate racial animosities between blacks and whites. We have enough of that. Disparities entrench that. They are, however, designed to make us break with the inveterate cancer of white supremacy and hegemony, so that South Africans regardless of race can all live with mutuality, reciprocity and social justice in a genuinely non-racial society that recognises the history, beauty and value of indigenous African civilisations and cultures as Es’kia Mphahlele, tragically underappreciated in the land of his birth, embodied in his life and teaching.

In essence, we are in desperate need of a society revamp so that South Africans shift their gazes from Europe to Africa, are more educated about the African continent and become involved in building a strong and united Africa where poverty, war and underdevelopment are firmly abolished.

Ultimately, the spirit of Soweto’s historic insurrection is liberating for us all because it dismantles the edifice of white supremacy and demolishes inculcated distortions of black inferiority and cultural inadequacy where humanity is no longer defined in terms of the pathological and distorted fabrication of “race”, but seen for the spirits we are in essence as creation has endowed upon us.

Kunnie is an academic activist, professor and researcher. His latest book is The Cost of Globalization: Dangers to the Earth and Its People


How do we build a society that the 1976 students sacrificed their lives for?

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Read more on:    soweto  |  youth


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