• Thursday, June 20, 2024
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South Africa: 40 years after the Soweto uprising                                                  


It has been forty years since protesting students were murdered in their youth by armed apartheid policemen in Soweto, a popular township near Johannesburg, South Africa during the apartheid era; an era of one of the world’s most oppressive systems, abhorred by all of humanity across the globe.

The 16th June 1976 protests by students from numerous schools across the township were ignited by one of the most anti academic laws which sought to downgrade the education of blacks by insisting they must be taught in Afrikaans in subjects such as mathematics, arithmetic and social studies while general sciences and practical subjects were to be taught in English. Indigenous languages were to be used for religious studies, music and physical culture.

The apartheid regime had earlier in 1974 passed the Afrikaans Medium Decree which compelled all black schools to mix up Afrikaans with English to teach students in all black high schools with effect from 1st January 1975.

Afrikaans, a low Franconian West Germanic language with Dutch descent was adopted in 1925 to replace English and Dutch, which the 1909 Union of South Africa Act recognised as official languages for South Africans.

The 1974 decree was massively rejected by blacks who are about 90% of the South African population because Afrikaans represent the language and weapon of oppression; indeed Archbishop Desmond Tutu, then Bishop of Lesotho and Dean of Johannesburg at the time appropriately described Afrikaans as “the language of the oppressor”.

And rather than study the academic subjects, the students were compelled to concentrate on studying the language that is not just allien to them but clearly a counter culture in all ramifications.

It was even more nauseatingly insulting that whites were allowed to be taught in their native languages while blacks had to be compelled to take instructions in a language strange to them.

The ultimate intent and purpose was for blacks never to get anywhere beyond the farms and factories as factory hands for the usurpers of their natural belongings. Indeed, the Deputy Minister of Bantu Education at the period, Punt Janson implied this much when he arrogantly said “a Blackman may be trained to work on a farm or a factory. He may work for an employer who is either English speaking or Afrikaans speaking and the man who has to give him instructions may be either English speaking or Afrikaans speaking. Why should we now start quarrelling about the medium of instruction among the black people as well?….No, I have not consulted them and I am not going to consult them. I have consulted the constitution of the Republic of South Africa.” Clearly, the form of education conceived for blacks was not the type that would take them beyond the slavery that was an integral part of the apartheid system. Therefore, accepting the new policy would have negated the struggle against the entire apartheid system.

The protests against this new policy didn’t start on 16 June, 1976. It started at the Orlando West Junior School on 30th April, 1976 when Orlando West students embarked on a strike by staying back in their homes, refusing to attend school. It was an obvious self driven action that plumetted to other schools and by the dusk of 16 June, between 10, 000 to 20, 000 students had been mobilized by the Students Representative Council, which succeeded the Action Committee earlier formed to drive the protests. The protests later got concrete political supports from the Black Consciousness Movement and the Teachers Association amongst several others.

And by dawn of 16 June 1976, it was estimated that at least 700 students had been brutally killed by the 1, 500 heavily armed policemen assisted by armoured vehicles, helicopters and standby soldiers who were deployed to smash the protests. Of course, the apartheid regime claimed only 27 students died.

There were many protests before and indeed much more after the June 16 protests, but the significance of the Soweto uprising is located in the successes recorded by the leading anti apartheid movement, the African National Congress, ANC. Though, the Black Consciousness Movement, BCM, encouraged and in fact provided the students the needed political focus that fired their determination, the non racial outlook of the ANC made mobilization easier with its attendant global solidarity. The uprisings assumed global prominence, especially coming at a period the apartheid regime was fast losing international friendships as the dominant forces in the global space had started urging the regime to embark on transformations; though the content of such transformation would not have translated to freedom for the people, especially the over 90% black populace who have been contending with the excruciating pangs of the overbearing dominance of the tiny but powerful white minority.

The Soweto uprisings were the greatest jolt on the strength and image of the apartheid regime which attracted more sanctions and boycotts from the international community. Even the fraud in granting some phoney “independence” to the Bantustan state of Transkei attracted more derision and ridicule from the global community, while peace and economic progress were truncated as all of post Soweto uprisings witnessed more violence, mass protests, global isolation and speedy slide in internal stability. Indeed, the country’s national currency, the Rands, lost values faster than the regime could ever had imagined.

The contributions of those young lads who sacrificed their lives for the freedom of their country from excruciating dominance of a tiny minority of just about 9% of the entire population has continually been dimmed by neo liberal agents who seized power after the demise of apartheid.

The new political class entrenched socio economic adversity of the majority and today, more than two decades after freedom, blacks are still strangulated under harsh conditions, perhaps of no significant difference from their experience under apartheid.

The South African population comprise of about 90% blacks, 9% whites, 9% coloured, and 2% of Indians or Asian extractions. The inequalities that characterised the apartheid regime are largely yet to be corrected, outside of political leadership now under the control of the majority.

Under the leadership of the ANC, and despite rising GDP, unemployment, income inequality, poverty, life expectancy, access to quality life, poor housing, educational disadvantages, lack of economic empowerment and much more; the black majority are nowhere near true liberation. And this has increased violence and restiveness among the youths who should have been a major consideration of any popular government, especially South Africa whose struggles for liberation were mainly orchestrated and fired to victory by the blood of young people.

Indeed, the country still groan under socio economic racism as evident in its income distribution, one of the most unequal in the world. About 60% of the population earns below $7,000 per annum, while 2.2% of the population earns an income far above $50,000 per annum. The black population is in the 60% while other races who are in the very tiny minority are in the 2.2%.


Perhaps, if the Freedom Charter that was adopted by popular votes conducted in Kliptown on 26th June, 1955 had been the driving policy direction of the post apartheid government, South Africans would have been better, happier and satisfied with the liberation. But now they have been entrapped in a tripartite contraptionthat is clearly under the grip of neo liberalism, which rubishes the soul of the Freedom Charter in building strong public institutions to deliver quality services accessible to all South Africans, regardless of race.

By the tripartite arrangement, involving the ruling party, ANC, Congress of South African Trade Unions and the South African Communist Party, the mass of the people have been stripped of the cord which tied them with these organisations; organisations that were major driving forces of the struggle. Rather than staying with the people to ensure the implementation of the Freedom Charter, these organisations opted to carry out instructions of global neo liberal institutions who found in Thabo Mbeki, an unrepentant neo liberalist and advocate of privatisation, a trusted representive of neo liberal interests in Africa. And the state is doing everything possible to implement, protect and advance these interests, even with the blood of the citizenry.

The Marikana mass murder of striking miners in 2012 is a striking example of how desperate the state prefers their new bride to its own people who shed blood to smash the apartheid regime as “liberated” Republic of South Africa sentheavily armed policemen to fire at 115 ofthousands of striking miners at a platinum mine in Marikana, about 80 miles from Johannesburg on August 16, 2012; the worst since Sharpeville massacre under apartheid. Thirty four of those fired at were reported dead. This wasn’t by some white apartheid policemen, but predominantly blacks, sent to protect an investment in which the country’s current Deputy President, Cyril Ramaphosa is on the board. Cyril was a highly respected Comrade during the anti apartheid struggles.

The miners were merely demanding for wage increase, which is their legitimate right, even under the country’s laws and constitution aside International Conventions, especially Conventions 98 and 87 of the International Labour Organisation.

South Africa is a country of so much hope for the African continent given the nature of its liberation struggle but our collective hope is obviously left in illusions as the country is conveniently seated among those acting the script to perpetually underdevelop the continent.

 Denja Yaqub

Yaqub was Oyo State Coordinating Secretary of the defunct Nigeria-African National Congress Friendship and Cultural Association during the anti apartheid struggles and currently an Assistant Secretary at the headquarters of the Nigeria Labour Congress, Abuja.