Remember Soweto: youth in South Africa

40thanniversary of theSoweto Uprising 16 June1976

From our archive we highlight an article on the 1976 Soweto Uprising written for FRFI by Trevor Ngwane, South African anti-apartheid activist, on the 10th anniversary of the end of apartheid in 2004. He asks ‘What has happened to the youth of 1976? What is happening to the youth today?’. On this 40th anniversary of Soweto we can ask the same questions, and, sadly, our conclusion would not be very different from Ngwane’s.

South Africa’s black youth still suffer racism, poverty and unemployment. Youth unemployment still stands at 63% compared to an overall rate of 35%. The country is governed by an increasingly notorious elite which has failed to destroy the legacy of apartheid for the black majority while at the same time amassing power and wealth for itself. Over recent years we have seen increasing austerity aimed at further impoverishing the black majority as a result of the neoliberal policies of the governing African National Congress. As the country’s economy goes from bad to worse, apart from a trickle of industrial actions particularly in the mining sector, political change has not been on the agenda. Even after 34 striking miners were shot dead, 79 wounded and 270 arrested by police at a platinum mine in Marikana in 2012, nothing changed. In South Africa the vast majority live in the same stinking apartheid slums called townships, lacking education, health care and work, deprived of a future.

More recently and directly as a result of this situation, black students have once again taken up political protest. On 9 March 2015 at the University of Cape Town (UCT) Chumani Maxwele hurled human faeces (gathered from a nearby township where there is no sewage system) at the prominent statue of Cecil Rhodes and began a demonstration against the racism that governs the provision of university education at UCT and across South Africa. So began the ‘Rhodes must fall’ movement which is not about statues but about the realities of life for young black people. As the protests spread to other universities in South Africa, the students occupied buildings, renamed the administration offices ‘Azania House’ and revived slogans from the anti-apartheid struggle. It is yet to be seen if this movement will gather strength and influence other struggles against the current regime, just as the 1976 Soweto uprising served as the catalyst for the township uprisings of the 1980s that eventually destroyed the apartheid regime.

June 2016

Remember Soweto: youth in South Africa

On 16 June South Africa celebrated Youth Day, commemorating the Soweto student uprising of 1976, when thousands of black school children and youth rose up against racist rule and hundreds were shot dead by police. This was one of the most historic episodes in the struggle against apartheid as young people faced tanks, brick in hand. Today we acknowledge the debt post-apartheid society owes to the heroic youth of 1976 as the country celebrates ten years of democracy and the demise of apartheid. For many, after the reminiscences follow the questions: What has happened to the youth of 1976? What is happening to the youth today?

Youth constitute the vast majority of South Africans, and what is happening to them is a good measure of what is happening to the masses in South Africa. In South Africa unemployment among young people is estimated to be as high as 70%, compared with the country’s average of 40%. The scourge of HIV/AIDS hits the youth the hardest with many infected. Meanwhile, the government is responding with too little too late, after being forced to act by social movements through mass action and the law courts.

The Soweto uprising was sparked off when the then Department of Bantu Education (sic) tried to impose the Afrikaans language as a medium of instruction in all African schools. In Soweto the youth revolted, refusing to be taught in the language of their oppressor. On 16 June 1976, the students decided to march to the local stadium to discuss a plan of action that involved all the schools. The march wormed its way through Soweto’s narrow and dusty streets emptying schools of students on their way to Orlando Stadium. The police soon blocked the road and demanded that the students disperse. Then they started shooting. The first victim was 13-year-old Hector Peterson. War had been declared and Soweto erupted in open and revolutionary class struggle for many months.

One of the students’ demands was equal education. In the 1960s, Prime Minister HF Verwoerd, the architect of apartheid, had made it clear in parliament that ‘swart mense’ (Afrikaans for black people) had no need for higher education because their role in society was to be ‘drawers of water and hewers of wood’. The struggle against inferior education has always been important in South Africa. Many political activists and leaders were won to the struggle against apartheid during their student days.

In 2004 the struggle for free, high quality public education continues. During the 16 June commemoration events organised by social movements in South Africa such as the Anti-Privatisation Forum, the Landless People’s Movement, the Education Rights Project and Khanya College, the message was clear: the ANC government has failed the youth of South Africa by adopting neo-liberal capitalist policies. There is nothing for the working class to celebrate but rather they should remember what those who died were fighting for and draw lessons for our struggles today.

The real beneficiaries of post-apartheid South Africa are the elites, old and new. The Oppenheimer family, owners of Anglo American Corporation, the colossal octopus of South African business, has increased its wealth phenomenally in the past 10 years. Cyril Ramaphosa, former general secretary of the ANC and of the National Union of Mineworkers, an important COSATU affiliate, became a billionaire overnight. It is the children of this bourgeoisie who fill the expensive private schools and this allows the government to neglect state schools. Even less wealthy parents are inclined to bus their children to slightly cheaper private schools kilometres away from the townships.

Public education is in a bad state in South Africa. The ANC government had its work cut out when it undertook the mammoth task of redressing the grim legacy of apartheid education 10 years ago. Much has changed but very little has been achieved. At the beginning of June, students at Wits University, one of the biggest in the country, went on strike until the campus authorities reversed their decision to cut student loans by half. Many working class parents find themselves having to bear a greater economic burden educating their children as the state withdraws funds, following the IMF policy of cutbacks. The government recently released figures showing that 43% of South African schools have no electricity, 27% no water, 50% have no flush toilets and use pit latrines or the bush and 80% of the schools have no libraries. It is perhaps no wonder that 60% of all children who enrol in Grade 1 do not make it to matriculation. The Department of Education allocates less than 1% of its budget for adult education. Many students who are now adults could not finish their education due to the repression of apartheid education. The class of 1976 finds that there are no adult schools they can go to for education to meet the challenges of a free South Africa. South Africa has a high functional illiteracy rate.

When the ANC was unbanned in 1990 one of the first things it did was to close down community, civic, women’s and youth structures which had organised the struggle against apartheid, such as the United Democratic Front, the largest mass-based organisation in South African history, the Federation of South African Women and the South African Youth Congress. In place of the latter two the ANC Women’s League and ANC Youth League were formed. These organisations have failed miserably to take forward their predecessors’ work. The ANC Youth League is a vociferous supporter of President Mbeki; its leader, Malusi Gigaba, has recently been rewarded with a cabinet minister level position as advisor to the president. Meanwhile, the Umsobovu Youth Fund, a very high-profile multimillion-rand youth development fund set up by the government, has been wrecked by scandals of inefficiency, failure to dispense funds to needy youth and conflicts of interest stories.

Many working class youth lead frustrated lives, tantalised by high-tech media campaigns advertising a consumer lifestyle few can afford. Unemployment is endemic, and those who do find jobs are forced to accept highly exploitative conditions. In November 2003 there was a nationwide strike by workers at Checkers Shoprite, a food chain store which employs about 70% of its staff on a casual basis. The strike was a first in that it was led by casual workers and supported by full-time workers. Most casual workers are youth.

Not surprisingly, many youth are disaffected about politics, feeling that politicians only benefit themselves. During the recent general election, the majority of youth in South Africa did not vote. In the early 1990s, Nelson Mandela commanded the youth to ‘go back to school’ – the struggle is over, leave politics to adults. But 10 years later the youth of South Africa still have much to struggle for. The student uprising in 1976 followed closely the 1973 Durban strikes, a wave of militant campaigns by workers fighting for better wages and conditions. It was this movement of workers fighting for their needs that led to the birth of the South African trade union movement, which has a proud history of militant struggle against apartheid capitalism. In 1984-6 there was a more sustained and comprehensive wave of struggle that gripped South Africa and culminated in the release of Nelson Mandela, and the unbanning of political organisations and ushered in the era of transition from apartheid to democracy. At one point all political and civic organisations were outlawed by the apartheid regime but the unions, in particular COSATU, continued the struggle. In the famous 1984 stayaway on the East Rand called jointly by organised students and organised workers, the condition for the full realisation of the power of the youth in struggle was identified. Unity of students and workers is an important condition to carry the struggle forward.

As the class contradictions sharpen in South Africa and the social movements win more youth to their ranks, we can expect the youth will again take up the mantle of struggle. But when that happens it will indicate the waking up from a deep political slumber of the South African working class, ready once more to enter the political arena as an independent force fighting behind its own demands.

Trevor Ngwane


Our site uses cookies to improve your browsing experience. By using the site you consent to the use of cookies.
More information Ok