Mahlodi Muofhe | The learners of 1976 want challenges in education system to be resolved

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On 16 June 1976 high-school students in Soweto, South Africa, protested for better education. (Photo by Bongani Mnguni/City Press/Gallo Images/Getty Images)
On 16 June 1976 high-school students in Soweto, South Africa, protested for better education. (Photo by Bongani Mnguni/City Press/Gallo Images/Getty Images)

Mahlodi Muofhe argues that the meaning of 16 June has been lost by the renaming of it to Youth Day. He writes that we haven't seen much change at learning facilities over the years as a result, despite the battle that was fought for quality education in 1976. 

If wishes were horses, I would have ridden one as a then 1976 Sekano-Ntoane High School student in Soweto, and redetermined the 16 June 1976 calendar date name differently. 

On that fateful day, together with my fellow cohorts from all secondary and high schools in Soweto, I was at the frontline, marching and carrying placards and protesting against the usage of Afrikaans language as a medium of instruction. Twined to this protest was the demand of the total dismantlement of the apartheid, Afrikaner-led government. The majority of us were in our teens.                 

The historic day of 16 June 1976 is known legislatively as Youth Day. There is nothing unpleasant about calling it this, but numbness about its name stems from whether we are commemorating it one year or celebrating it; depending on how the dice falls. The deadlock within myself on whether to call 16 June 1976 'Youth Day' catches the real intent of what we fought for and against in 1976.                                     

In 1976, I was completing Form V or Matric, which is today called Grade 12.

READ | A turning point in fight against apartheid: Timeline of events on 16 June 1976

Certainly, Hector Pieterson, one of the very first victims to perish under a hail of bullets emitted from the barrels of the apartheid highly armed security forces, was not technically a youth. Pieterson was 12 or 13 years old in 1976. The United Nations (UN) defines persons who are 15 to 24 years old as the ‘youth'. The UN isn’t peremptory on this definition. In terms of our National Youth Commission Act, a youth is anyone between the ages 14 and 35.

The legacy of our protest on 16 June 1976 remains incomplete for so long as we fail to factor in the untimely death of Dr Melville Edelstein. In retaliation for Pieterson's death, students hurled stones at the harmless and unarmed Dr Edelstein until he too succumbed.                              

Dr Edelstein was a white civil servant and worked in Soweto as a municipal employee.

He served residents of Central Western Jabavu (CWJ) township in Soweto with distinction. He was 57 years old when students, out of anger, killed him.

Apartheid security forces indirectly caused the death of Dr Edelstein. Their hatred for a black child blinded them so much that they failed to reconcile themselves with the reality that white civil servants, like Dr Edelstein, few as they were, could be casualties.

Which wounds of Edelstein's family do we slit deeper and deeper when we consciously omit to bandage them on this memorial day?

Perhaps now, or in the not so distant future, a need will arise to look at the appropriateness or lack thereof of naming 16 June 1976 - Youth Day. This should be done not for cosmetic sentimental purposes, but for ensuring that, when history is captured and documented, it is so done correctly. 

READ | 44 years after the Soweto uprising, we speak to those who were there

The class of 1976 ran its race and passed on the struggle for quality education baton to the next generation who succeeded us.

Challenges faced by the current crop of learners, and I intently employ the word 'learners' to enable us to appreciate that the messaging of our commemoration or celebrations should be fit for purpose, are as immense if not more than they were in 1976. We fought hard against being taught in Afrikaans.     

Quality education      

Learners of Goza Primary School in Soweto, since its inception in 2014, or so, learn under difficult unhygienic conditions.

The 12 year old Hector Pietersons in this school, for a prolonged period, operated without a proper running water system because it is said that the school is not connected to the municipal water grid. Their right to clean water was infringed upon for so long. At Mehlodumela Primary School, Polokwane, in Limpopo Province, Grade R pupil Michael Komape fell into a pit toilet on his school premises and drowned.                                            

Learners in township and rural schools in villages have found access to learning, due to the Covid pandemic, a daunting challenge. They have no access to wireless learning facilities, which is an absolute necessity and not a luxury to be able to learn.

There hasn't been much improvement either at facilities at Tshilidzi Primary School in Tshiawelo, Soweto, where I started my schooling in 1964. 

The Class of 1976 fought for quality education for a black child. We still have a long way to overcome challenges facing learners generally - but, in particular, those in the townships and in the rural villages throughout South Africa.

The learners of 1976 would like to see the challenges of today's learners resolved. 

 - Advocate Mahlodi Muofhe is the domestic head of the State Security Agency.

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