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What is Youth Day all about?

40 years ago a protest that was to change the face of South Africa politically, economically and socially took place. In 1976 the cell phone had not yet been invented; and for South Africa television was very new, just over 5 months old.

June 16th 1976 was a protest against the compulsory use of both official languages for teaching, but its importance was that the youth had taken the initiative.  Protests against what was officially called Bantu Education had been happening since it was introduced in 1953.

Before then the education of Africans, Coloureds and Indians had been left largely to missionaries and other private parties with the government taking little or no interest. In the 1920s Prime Minister Hertzog had openly stated that his concern was to educate the whites, not the blacks.

In a township like Soweto, the unavailability of schools became a serious problem as a result of the increasing numbers of African youth.  By the time the National Party won power in 1948 it was obvious that more needed to be done for the education of the black majority if the country was to develop – an unskilled illiterate labour force was no longer enough even for the mines. Therefore the government introduced the new Bantu Education policy in 1953 under which the government took responsibility for the education of the black population. This education was neither compulsory nor free as white education was.

The Bantu Education Act gave Black education to the Department of Native Affairs and the Minister in charge,Dr Verwoerd, said:

“… the Native will be taught from childhood to realise that equality with Europeans is not for them … people who believe in equality are not desirable teachers for them  … What is the use of teaching the Bantu child mathematics when it cannot use it in practice? That is quite absurd.”

As an integral part of the policy of apartheid education for Black people would be inferior. At first the struggle against Bantu Education was part of a broader struggle against apartheid.

From the 1970s protests in schools became more common and at times turned violent leading to damage to school property.  A 1975 cabinet reshuffle brought Bantu Education under the control of Andries Treurnicht who decided to enforce the regulation that in high schools half the subjects should be taught in each official language. A regulation that had never been enforced because it was impractical. Teachers, inspectors and other government officials tried to persuade Treurnicht that it was not possible but he was adamant. Soweto schools led the protests against this. In June various schools joined forces in demonstrations that culminated in the June 16 uprising.

The student leaders, many of whom were members of the Black Consciousness South African Students’ Movement, organised the protest without their teachers or parents being aware of it. They planned a simple, peaceful protest march moving from school to school to Orlando Stadium where various leaders would address them.

Long before they reached that point, the police intervened with tear gas and then with live ammunition when the students did not disperse quickly enough. The scenes of police violence were televised and echoed around the world with growing abhorrence at the government’s inhumanity.

The events of June 1976 led to a change in black education; the creation of the Urban Foundation to look at ways business and individuals could improve living conditions in the African townships, a women’s movement reaching out across the colour line in the belief that women of all colours had much to unite them as women and mothers; two separate commissions of inquiry to investigate labour issues and the position of the Urban Black and the start of the removal of apartheid laws under the newly appointed reformist Prime Minister P.W. Botha.

South Africa would never be the same after June 1976 because the youth took charge. Last year at the end of a symbolic march to commemorate 16 June 1976 two leaders of that march (Dan Montsitsi & Enos Ngutshane) handed a baton “from the heroes of the past to the icons of tomorrow” who need to build a better South Africa of social cohesion.

To build that social cohesion is the challenge facing you, the youth of 2016. Are YOU up to that challenge?