Maritzburg College: Silencing pupils an insult to youth of '76

The iconic photo showing 13-year-old Hector Pieterson being carried after being shot by police during the 1976 Soweto uprising. (File, AP)
The iconic photo showing 13-year-old Hector Pieterson being carried after being shot by police during the 1976 Soweto uprising. (File, AP)

Like most people my age, I am inspired by the acts of unimaginable heroism displayed by generations of young people before me. 

From the Soweto school children who dared to march against the apartheid education system in 1976, to Solomon Mahlangu who made the supreme sacrifice at the age of 23 in 1979, to Stephen Bantu Biko who dedicated his youth to conscientising black people on ridding themselves of racial inferiority; we have a rich history of young people who realised that they needed to be the change they longed for. My generation owes them a debt I doubt we will ever be able to repay. 

Each year, we use the month of June to pay tribute to these heroes and heroines of yesteryear. The stories of their courage never grow old and I am always in awe when I reflect on how far our nation has come because of their courage. 

It is during these moments that I wonder what they would think of us, but more importantly, I wonder what succeeding generations will think of us. Are we going to be remembered as the generation that only reaped the fruits of the tree that was nourished by Mahlangu's blood? Or are we also going to write our own chapter in history? 

Over the past week or so, the nation has been engulfed over a picture depicting three Maritzburg College learners holding up T-shirts in support of the EFF and land reform. Unsurprisingly, this drew mixed reactions and other stories emerged over alleged racism at the school. 

What I found astounding however was a sentiment expressed by many that school children should not make political statements and suggestions that these learners have shamed their school in doing so. Others went on to say that because these learners aren't adults they lack the capacity to make informed political decisions. What hypocrisy and absolute nonsense. 

I wish to remind those who think this way that the youth of 1976 marched in school uniform and during school hours. They did this under an oppressive regime. To now say that young people in a constitutional democracy shouldn't be able to express their views because "they are on school grounds" and "they are wearing school uniform" as many have said is baffling and insulting to the youth of yesteryear on whose shoulders this generation stands.

There has been dishonesty in the public conversations we have heard around this incident. The learners have been used as a convenient distraction by people of all races and political persuasions to further the own interests. 

Some have played the victim and said if the learners were white there would be outrage as they feel whites aren't allowed to express their views as freely. Others questioned why children from an affluent school should even be interested in issues like land reform because of their perceived privilege. All of these views fail to confront the true cause of the anger we have seen from some. 

Let's call it out but before I do I need to state that I am not a supporter of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). It's necessary for me to provide this disclaimer as some would make assumptions as a means of discrediting my opinions instead of engaging the content. 

In my analysis, the outrage comes from the fact that these learners support the EFF and they went further by having the audacity to mention the divisive issue of land. This is why you are angry. 

Had the learners held up banners in support of your preferred party or used a hashtag like #ZumaMustGo for example, you would have applauded their bravery and called for more to do the same. This is human nature because our first instinct is to react with defence when we feel threatened. But we have to call it out. 

One of the ideals Biko strived for was universal suffrage and indeed we have that today. But consider this: the 2014 general elections marked the first time people born after 1994 were going to be eligible to vote. However, according to the Independent Electoral Commission only 33.6% of this group had bothered to register to vote. Effectively, only 646 313 out of a possible 1.9 million people in this category were prepared to vote. 

Around the world we often hear that young people are apathetic and are more interested in "living it up". I think we should all be encouraged by young people like these learners who demonstrate an ability to think because they are the ones who will decide who leads our country in future. 

Democracy isn't guaranteed and every generation needs to rise up and defend it. The struggles faced by today's youth do not require of us to take up arms or to go into exile but they are not less significant. 

Our education must prepare us to confront these challenges. We must never buy into this notion that schools aren't places to engage in political debate when schools should actually be a place where when learn to think critically and independently. 

What we have seen with these learners is democracy at work. Here we have three young people openly supporting an opposition party without fear that they will be hanged like Mahlangu or face a fate similar to Hector Pieterson's. 

The rest of us need to remember that democracy means that while I may disagree with your views, I will still defend your right to express them. This is the pact we entered into in 1994 and we should not dare try to undo our own progress. 

- Mondli Zondo (@MoZondo)is a columnist and a Mandela Washington Fellow. He writes in his personal capacity.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

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