It is difficult for me to accept that it has been 40 years since 16 June 1976 when police shot protesters in Soweto who did not want to be taught in Afrikaans. The first and very dramatic victim was Hector Pieterson, with the picture of his body, brilliantly captured by Sam Nzima, putting South Africa on the front pages of newspapers all around the world for all the wrong reasons.
The protests started in Soweto but quickly led to a nationwide uprising, including intense almost civil war in the Western Cape, in which hundreds more people were killed.
The government-appointed Cillie Commission of Enquiry found that 575 people died throughout the country, with 451 being the result of police action. These figures have been criticised as being way too low.
Why I find it difficult to accept that it has been 40 years is because what happens in that year is still imprinted vividly on my mind. It is like it happened yesterday.
I have previously written about my own story and how the happenings in 1976 was effectively what convinced me as a 16-year-old to throw my lot in with the struggle. It felt like the only thing to do.
It is important to remind ourselves that the protests, while it started in Soweto, did not end there. In fact, it continued in the Western Cape for a long while afterwards. And, like in Soweto, many people were killed and injured in the Western Cape for showing their support for the students’ struggle.
Because there was no television at the time, we depended on the newspapers and word of mouth for our information. As a result, the reaction from students in the Western Cape was relatively slow, with the first real support reported in the last week of June, when students from Langa came out. However, over the next few weeks, students at the University of the Western Cape came out in support as well as students from high schools across the Western Cape, and mainly from what we call “coloured” areas.
There is a narrative which has gained a lot of currency in recent years that “coloured” people, particularly in the Western Cape, never really supported the Struggle and that is why it was easy for the Nationalist Party and subsequently the DA to rule in the province.
But what transpired in 1976 was not an aberration. It was a natural conclusion to what had been happening in the Western Cape politically and a natural forerunner to what was to come in the 1980s with the huge support in the Western Cape for the United Democratic front (UDF) and its subsidiary organisations.
Organisations who supported the Black Consciousness philosophy had been very prominent in the Western Cape in the 1970s, led by people such as Johnny Issel and Peter Jones. It was therefore not a surprise when students at UWC and many of the “coloured” areas decide to come out in support of the students in Soweto.
It was the same Johnny Issel who played a key role in the early 1980s when he pushed for the formation of the UDF and for its launch to be held in Mitchells Plain in 1983. By that time Issel, like many of his contemporaries, had moved on from supporting black consciousness to broadly supporting non-racialism.
Much has been written, and much more will probably be written about why the ANC lost the elections in the Western Cape in 1994. One of the reasons is probably because the ANC has never really bothered to fully understand the people of the Western Cape.
They tried and there was a period, especially when Ebrahim Rasool and/or Chris Nissen were provincial leaders, that they appeared to make headway, but since then it has been mainly downhill. There appears to be an acceptance that the ANC will probably never win the province and the city of Cape Town back from the DA.
I have never really worried about who is in charge politically. All I have always asked is that they dedicate themselves to the project of uplifting the majority of poor people and help to transform our society into one where there will be less inequality and more prosperity.
If the ANC is serious about wanting to win back the Western Cape politically, they will need to analyse why “coloured” people came out in their thousands to support the events in Soweto 40 years ago and why they had so much confidence in the UDF, a confidence that they have not transferred to the ANC.
Maybe they need to start by acknowledging the contribution of comrades in the Western Cape and see those contributions for what they were: part of the process of truly liberating our country and instituting a democracy based on non-racism, non-sexism and other values. It was never about making contributions based on being a member of any racial or ethnic group.
In fact, it was the complete opposite which is something the ANC – caught up in racial and tribal factionalism – is struggling to come to terms with. The best way to pay tribute to the students who gave their lives in 1976 is to continue the non-racialism project in South Africa.
(First published as a Thinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus on Saturday 4 June 2016.)