I was 7 years old on the 16 June, 1976
1976 was a significant year in the history of South Africa. January of that year welcomed Television sets into our homes and June saw the Apartheid government mandating Afrikaans as the primary language of learning in all subjects in schools under the Bantu Education Act. On 16 June, 1976, 20 000 students from Soweto, alongside parents and teachers, planned a peaceful protest which became known as the 'Soweto uprising' and which ended in chaos and tragedy. I was seven years old and had just started grade two.
Of these two events, the former touched my life, the latter did not. Even though we did not get a TV that year, the elderly couple across the road invited us in the afternoons to watch theirs. Even as an English speaker, my favourite TV characters from that time include 'Liewe Heksie' and 'Bennie Boekwurm.' (In light of the context of this blog, the subtle irony of the Afrikaans programmes should not be lost on you). 😉
As far as the Soweto uprising and the practical injustices of the Bantu Education Act were concerned - I was completely unaware. These political decisions did not impact my insular little world. I was a child - a white child - separated and segregated from a world that I didn't even know existed and yet whose reality was playing out a mere stone’s throw away.
But I grew up.
And as the walls of Apartheid began to crumble, I became aware of this pivotal event in the history of our country and its significance at the time. The political narrative highlighted its horror and I have had to live with associated guilt as a white South African.
On the 16 June, 1995, I was 26 years old and the world I had grown up in no longer existed.
As the first Youth Day was celebrated, I could look at the world my children would grow up in and realise that the loss of young lives in the Soweto uprising had paved the way for our new democracy. A new world where my children would share classrooms, sports fields and friendships with peers of all cultures and ethnicities.
So, what does the 16 June mean to me?
I do not have sad memories of loved ones who lost their lives on that day. I cannot relate to the fear and anger of experiencing ongoing injustice. I have no understanding of the anxious conversations behind closed doors. I cannot imagine the bravery of those who were prepared to stand for what is right and who had to sacrifice their lives for what they believed in.
For me, the 16 June is a day to remember what was and what is and the cost it took to get here. It is a day to pause and realise that a society that values justice, equality, dignity, respect and integrity is one that is tenuous and needs to be safeguarded. It is a day when I look back over our troubled past and realise that change is possible.
May the youth of today pause and realise that where they stand at this moment in time came at a huge cost to their parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles. The 16 June is a day to be grateful and celebrate the strides we have made and the hurdles of injustice that have been overcome. May we, as South Africans, remember the cost and teach our children the lessons history has taught us.
The events of the 16 June, 1976 may not be my story in the same way that it is yours. I cannot change that. I was 7 years old. But it is part of our collective history and that makes it an important day to remember.
I am no longer a child and I am longer unaware. That makes me care.
For further topics/perspectives relating to our country's complex past, please read:
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