ON June 16, 1976 students took to the streets, led by a common cause that bound them so strongly that it caused many of their ill-timed deaths. In Soweto, schools were shut down as thousands of young people marched in protest against the implementation of Afrikaans as a primary educational language by the apartheid government.
The move for solidarity was echoed throughout the country with protest action and marches taking place on our very campus. Rhodes students also participated in the liberation movement, and many a time risked their academic futures and their very lives to further the cause of the day.
Student governance and student-led movements were testament to the diabolical behaviour and action committed by the apartheid government and the pioneering spirit that these brave young men and women had remains legend to us all.
It was students who met in underground venues and communicated a vision for change, it was students who marched in Sharpeville and Soweto, and it was students who bled and died.
Obviously, students were not solely involved in the movement, but while recognising what others did, we recognise students particularly and what this means for us as students. They contributed to the greater movement by organising and communicating with their colleagues in various institutions.
The power the youth wielded grew to a point where it was able to shake the very foundations of this country. Student newspapers and radio stations, some legal and others not, encouraged people to join the struggle.
This year marks 35 years since their precious sacrifice and we look and we see and we meditate, reflecting on their actions and from them assessing our own.
This year the Rhodes University SRC celebrated its 101st birthday. An opportunity arose to reflect, ponder a way forward in terms of student governance – its merits, its relevance at Rhodes University and its significance within the greater South African context. During the centenary celebrations, SRC alumni from around the country spoke to us about their terms in the SRC, especially in the ‘70s and ‘80s.
Many expressed that at the time it was considered a dangerous and brave thing to be part of the SRC, because there was constant friction with the apartheid police.
Wendy Nunn, now a clinical psychologist and SRC alumni, recalls several of her colleagues disappeared and were never seen again.
Jo McRobert related how Steve Biko was at Rhodes in disguise in a meeting with the SRC shortly before the 1976 uprisings. It was a tense and dangerous time, and Biko along with many others died mysteriously thereafter.
Student governance has come a long way since. It has moved from a time where an oppressive, destructive and horribly unjust system was the common enemy to a growing egocentric culture that lacks leadership.
Time has passed but there remains a fight to be fought. There has been a move from a time where students were the moral voice of society to a time where we are unsure what the agenda of the day is.
The spirit with which those heroes and heroines of ’76 fought, where students across the country joined in the protests in various ways, needs to be rekindled. Surely it wasn’t all for nothing?
Surely there are issues now that with that same spirit, in solidarity with students across the country we can fight, we can tackle and engage. Surely students can be the moral voice of society once more.
The actions of those patrons and custodians of student leadership founded the very definition of participation through student governance. They were students just like us, but they believed in a cause.
They believed in a future they wanted to be a part of. They stood up for the future by standing up for themselves.
It is partly because they stood up, that we can fully enjoy life as we do today. This does not mean that the work is finished.
Surely the duty lies with us to stand up for the future by standing up for ourselves. An awareness of the issues – the growing lack of accountability of our leaders, education and the massive effect it has on the poor and the marginalised of this country – is merely the beginning.
We realise and accept there was a great amount of good in their actions and we are grateful for them. Let us begin to show our gratitude in our actions, which may not always be applauded.
Let us expect more of ourselves than just cars and comfortable homes. Let us expect a legacy from ourselves, a legacy which we will grow and take to the future.
The actions of the students of ’76 were brave and noteworthy. They lived lives with purpose and dreamed big dreams.
We need leadership and a network of solidarity throughout the country. Stand up for ourselves and in so doing fight for the future!
To Hector Pieterson, Steve Biko, Hastings Ndlovu, Teboho “Tsietsi” Mashinini and many other named and unnamed heroes, students who laid down their lives for the future, we salute you!
Mbongeni Allan Magubane, Rhodes University SRC president, Grahamstown