SOME reflections on June 16 have created the impression the primary fight of the youth activists of 1976 was merely against the imposition of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction, while others perpetuate the absurdity that the events that precipitated the epoch-making uprising were engineered by ANC underground operatives.
There are more fundamental philosophical and ideological questions about this uprising, which remain unresolved today. One relates to the content and character of the education that our young people were supposed to receive in a liberated Azania (South Africa).
Today, one of the key questions is whether the kind of education we have brings us any closer to the kind of society that was envisioned by Tsietsi Mashinini and his peers.
Apartheid’s architects understood that in modern society education is the primary instrument for the development of young people and therefore to retard the development of current and future generations of young African people, you should deny them education, or make sure their education is of an inferior quality. Like all systems of oppression, the apartheid Bantu education system was designed in such a way that it continues to achieve its objectives even long after its architects have passed on.
The irony is that it retards even the development of those African young people who believe themselves to be born into freedom.
Because they understood the National Party motives, the architects of the 1976 student uprising replied with a potent statement: “We reject the whole system of Bantu education, which aims to reduce us to ‘hewers of wood and drawers of water’”.
Sadly, one of the deficiencies of the post-1994 education policy discourse and practice is the superficial manner in which it seeks to reverse the legacy of centuries of racist minority white rule. In applying this policy approach, those who have managed our education since 1994 have inadvertently entrenched the outcomes of the Bantu education policy.
To illustrate this, 17 years into a government elected by the majority, the socio-economic situation of young people, especially the African section, is very depressing.
According to a survey by the SA Institute of Race Relations, one in two young South Africans – and two out of three young African women – are jobless. The survey also found the unemployment rate among all 15- to 24-year-olds is 51% – more than twice the national unemployment rate of 25%.
Equally concerning is the finding that the longer young people were unemployed, the more unemployable they became.
Various other studies by credible bodies suggest that not only do a considerable number of pupils struggle with basic literacy and numeracy when they enter university, but our pupils also rank far below countries with the same development attributes as South Africa, in the learning areas of mathematics and science.
Why is it that the policies of a government that is led by a party that fought against all that Hendrik Verwoerd stood for have almost similar results to those of Verwoerd’s National Party? The reality is while education and youth development appear to be top priorities in the key policy documents of our government and the speeches of our country’s ruling elite, in practice this is far from the case.
In fact, if there is one area in which the current government has failed our country’s young black people, it is education. To build the kind of society that Mashinini and others fought and died for, we first have to understand that the problems besetting our education system are intricately linked to the problems facing the African community. Therefore, we will have to rethink our entire approach to resolving the education crisis.
Firstly, black parents must realise the education of their children is not solely the responsibility of the state, but theirs too. At a community level, we must find creative ways of ensuring that parents, community-based organisations and business become more involved in local schools.
Secondly, there is a need to increase the number of libraries, science centres and youth and recreation centres in the townships and rural areas, with a view to making education and knowledge acquisition an integral part of community life.
Thirdly, the quality of the infrastructure of many township and rural schools is far from satisfactory. Fourthly, there is causal link between the quality of teachers in our schools and the quality of pupils that emerge.
Therefore, the quality of teacher training and the levels of remuneration for teachers should be greatly and urgently improved.
Fifthly, South Africa’s basic education policy wisely emphasises the production of a targeted number of pupils who should achieve quality passes in mathematics and science at high school level. This is a progressive policy which, if properly implemented, could ensure that in the long term, our universities produce the number of science, engineering and technology graduates required to enable our country not only to achieve higher economic growth rates, but also to use our knowledge for purposes of social transformation.
June 16, 1976 was not only a protest against the imposition of Afrikaans and inferior education. At a deeper level, June 16 was also about restoring our humanity as a people and ushering in a society in which all people live a dignified life irrespective of their race, colour or creed. How close are we to realising this ideal?
Veli Mbele, Pretoria