As we celebrate Youth Month, there are lessons today's youth can learn from the 1976 youth generation. Their fortitude, solidarity, selflessness and single-mindedness are traits our society, not just the youth, desperately needs today.
The series of protests that began in Soweto on the morning of 16 June 1976 left an indelible mark and changed the course of history in our country. The apartheid regime was on a seeming unstoppable march of power and might. Following a number of laws it had enacted to oppress black South Africans, in 1974 it announced the Afrikaans Medium Decree that would force all black schools to use Afrikaans as a language of instruction for certain subjects.
The black youth of that time, tired of witnessing the daily oppression of their parents, resented this decree. That resentment, which started at Orlando West Junior School, snowballed into a rebellion that spread to other schools in Soweto. We learn from history that the protest, planned by the Soweto Students' Representative Council's Action Committee, emphasized good discipline and peaceful action - something we lack in today's protest actions, be it by students or community members.
It is a well-documented fact that the response of the police to what was a peaceful protest was extremely brutal. A 13-year old pupil, Hector Pieterson, was among the first students to be shot. The picture of a dying Hector as he was carried away by another brave youth Mbuyisa Makhubo with a traumatized elder sister of Hector has since become the symbol of the June 16 1976 uprising. It is a deep tragedy that Mbuyisa has to date never been found. South Africa owes its liberation to young people like Mbuyisa and Hector. Many like them lost their youth and identity because they were prepared to lay down their lives for a just cause.
Some of these young people went into exile and energized the anti-apartheid organizations like the ANC, PAC and Azapo which had themselves gone into exile. These organizations must be credited for having been able to channel and organize the energy and anger of the students who were seeking to end apartheid. We salute the generation of 1976 for their commitment, sacrifice and some paid the ultimate prise for the freedom we enjoy today. It sad when one sees and witness student anger today becoming self-destructive and resulting in the torching and destroying of properties and educational facilities , one wonders whether our political parties today have lost the skill to rightly channel this anger.
Whereas white South Africa was largely oblivious to the events of June 16 1976, a significant number of White South Africans were outraged at the government's heavy handed actions in Soweto. About 300 white students from the University of the Witwatersrand marched through Johannesburg in protest against the killing of innocent black children. This act of solidarity was symbolically important and sent a strong message to the apartheid government that there were white South Africans who were not prepared to passively watch as injustices were being carried out in their name. It is a solidarity we need to demonstrate with those who suffer an injustice, irrespective of race, colour or creed.
A number of those students who were involved in the 1976 uprisings have since gone on to acquire skills and education. Some are in the private sector, some in the public service while some are politicians. Their success in life speaks volumes about the resilience of the human spirit. Indeed, they never took off their eyes from what was ultimately what they were fighting for - a decent education. They had courage, focus, discipline and willing to fight to the end. They didn't rebel against Afrikaans because they hated the language. They did so because theirs was ultimately about equality, freedom and dignity for all.
At a time when our youth is ravaged by drugs, unemployment overwhelmed by a sense of hopelessness and discouragement, it is my wish that it could look up to the 1976 generation for inspiration. Their sense of responsibility, discipline, commitment and willingness to sacrifice. For our country to succeed we need all our young people black and white to unite and help the older generation to build a better South Africa for all, the future of this country is in their hands. There are young people who have traversed this journey before and conquered the challenges they faced. You can do the same.