PERHAPS the most significant observation on the recently commemorated thirtieth anniversary of the Soweto Uprising is the fact that few people under the age of 40 have a clear memory of the circumstances that brought it about. Fortunately, we were spared statements that were too sweeping about ‘turning points in history’. The latter, like geomorphology, is largely a matter of slow erosive processes interspersed by cataclysmic events. Historically their importance of is a matter of debate and they are not necessarily as important as they may seem. In this case, it is fair to say that the Soweto Uprising redefined the nature of protest and re-energised opposition politics in South Africa. It certainly marked the beginning of the end of apartheid.

In spite of the best efforts of the Truth Commission, recent South African history has been somewhat shabbily treated and in some instances taken over by political propagandists. This anniversary was no exception. In its wake trailed the now familiar hectoring comments of the ANC Youth League, in this case decreeing that certain events, like the Comrades Marathon, are no longer welcome on Youth Day. According to Fikile Mbalula, ‘June 16 is ours … and we are jealous with it [sic].’ The race organisers have feebly capitulated: so much for freedom. In giving way they neglected to ask a very important question of concern to the public: where is the dividing line between prohibition and prescription; being told what we cannot do, and what we must do?

Another finger-wagging member of the current South African political scene, Motsoko Pheko, claimed that the PAC organised the uprising. He based this on a crop of trials that took place in Bethal a couple of years later. The apartheid regime was of course as casual about historical accuracy as contemporary politicians: charge sheets in political trials were littered with spurious claims in the hope that something would stick and opponents would be put away for long stretches.

We should get back into the habit of calling 16 June after its origins in Soweto instead of the ANC’s preferred name, Youth Day. Like the wave of strikes that started in Durban in the docks and at Coronation Brick and Frame from 1972 onwards, the uprising was a grassroots phenomenon. The focal point was a chaotic, badly administered and irrelevant school system and the catalyst was the personal frustration, often fury, of pupils. Language policy in schools had long been a contentious issue, but it was Minister of Bantu Education M.C. Botha’s insistence that complicated subjects were to be taught by teachers who could barely communicate in Afrikaans that lit the fire. It is hard to think of more ill-judged or unreasonable decision making.

The uprising was a local protest organised by ordinary people, a tribute to their determination and the resourcefulness of leaders from their ranks that owed little or nothing to pre-existing political structures. Joel Netshitenzhe significantly paid tribute to their principled militancy. Indeed the ANC (and the irredeemably shambolic PAC) had limited operational presence in the country as a whole at the time apart from a few couriers and the occasional letter bomb. In fact, the uprising presented the ANC with new opportunity: the flood of exiles provided the resources to bring forward a campaign of sporadic and often amateur armed attacks, the first since the early 1960s.

Yet thirty years later the ANCYL has expropriated the uprising’s anniversary, perverting its real meaning and telling the citizens of a free country how they will celebrate it. One can make a good argument that the camaraderie, commitment and bravery of thousands of Comrades runners is more in the spirit of the schoolchildren who led the Soweto Uprising than boring diatribes from self-important politicians of often dubious provenance. As a recent contributor to the SABC put it, the Comrades is a run for freedom.

But this is not all. The lessons of the uprising have not been absorbed by the governing party under majority rule. What happened in 1976 was both predictable and logical given the fact that South Africa was an authoritarian, some would argue fascist, state in which power was exercised on the basis of race and often outside the rule of law. We now live in a country with strong democratic institutions whose leaders behave in increasingly undemocratic ways. The political culture of South Africa sometimes still bears the imprint of Minister Botha. In 2005 cross-border municipalities (and some that were not) were arbitrarily reassigned to provinces without the agreement of a majority of residents, presumably in the interests of the ANC’s political ambitions. Reasonable requests for dialogue were refused and arbitrary decisions made by remote control. The result has been remarkably and strikingly similar to Soweto in 1976: protests that turn ugly and are dealt with by the police to deadly effect; and the subsequent widespread boycott of elections. In the world of undemocratic practice, history does indeed repeat itself.

There are those who, for a variety of reasons, argue that the past should be buried. This would be most unwise. The most obvious reason not to do so is that unprincipled politicians never forget the past and make mischievous use of it. We need to know our history to the fullest possible extent, commemorate its truths, and demolish the lies that are told about it. Knowledge of our past is a means of protecting our basic civil rights: it should be treasured and never abandoned to the unscrupulous.

This article was first published in The Witness on 4 July 2006 and entitled ‘Reflections on Soweto Day’.

Further reading: Jeremy Brickhill, Sowing the Whirlwind (London: International Defence and Aid Fund, 1977); Baruch Hirson, Year of Fire, Year of Ash: The Soweto Revolt: Roots of a Revolution? (London: Zed, 1979); John Kane-Berman, Soweto: Black Revolt, White Reaction (Johannesburg: Ravan, 1978).