Struggle and resistance, ongoing since 1976

Post-apartheid student activism draws heavily on the Class of 1976’s legacy of resistance. Black students remain marginalised and the Covid-19 pandemic once again brings inequalities to the fore.

Forty-four years after the 1976 youth uprising and 26 years since the birth of democracy in South Africa, inequality in education persists. 

Those on the margins of society are beneficiaries of an education system that doesn’t adequately prepare them for the future. Poorly educated youths swell the ranks of the unemployed and the Covid-19 pandemic that is currently sweeping through the world has compounded these inequalities. 

To curb the spread of the coronavirus in South Africa, the government implemented strict regulations in late March that saw schools and universities close. University and school classes were now conducted via the internet. In one of the world’s most unequal societies, this digital classroom has laid bare the class and racial divide in the country. Socioeconomic status determines a person’s ability – or inability – to access online classes.

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These developments are ironic given the priority that the Constitution places on education. It’s universally agreed that education leads to the creation of a better and more just society. Consequently, millions of rands are pumped into the education budget every year, but without much success. Still the legacy of the past lingers.

Education in South Africa remains a contested terrain, just as it was on the morning of 16 June 1976 when pupils, some barely teenagers, marched through Soweto on their way to the Orlando Stadium to protest against the proposed introduction of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction, effectively threatening to turn them into domestic slaves.

The uprising

We all know what happened next. Lesley Hastings Ndlovu and Hector Pietersen were shot during the march, among the first victims of police repression that day. Student leaders such as Tsietsi Mashinini had to go underground, with a large number of the students skipping the border to revitalise the liberation struggle in exile. During this period, instability reigned at schools throughout the country. A fuse had been lit and education was one of the battlegrounds in the fight against apartheid.

Persistent inequality

Education is still a contested terrain. Post-apartheid student movements have called for, among other things, a decolonised education, a halt to financial exclusion and changes to language policy – the latter being advocated by the Open Stellenbosch movement. What we are seeing in post-apartheid South Africa stretches to the student activism from black tertiary institutions such as Turfloop, Fort Hare, the University of Zululand and others up until the 1976 uprising.

In Theorising the #MustFall Student Movements in Contemporary South African Higher Education: A Social Justice Perspective, Mlamuli Hlatshwayo and Kehdinga Fomunyam make a link between the past and the present in student struggles and resistance. 

“In contemporary South Africa, scholars have argued that there was no ‘post’ moment for students registered in historically black universities, technical and vocational education and training (TVET) colleges as well as universities of technology, which seem to have been experiencing massive student protests since the dawn of the new democratic dispensation,” write the authors.

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In the history of student activism, black tertiary institutions played an inspirational role. Looming large among them is Turfloop, now the University of Limpopo. Researcher Anne Heffernan writes how the university influenced the political consciousness of the Class of 1976. Former Turfloop students mentored the 1976 pupils. 

“One institution played a formative role in the growth of student politics across South Africa during the 1970s in the classrooms of Soweto and beyond. Tucked away in a Bantustan in the Northern Transvaal, its contribution to national politics has been largely neglected, unless you are a historian. But the University of the North (today the University of Limpopo, popularly called Turfloop) was a centre of political innovation and mobilisation in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It played a direct role in influencing the students of 1976,” writes Heffernan.

The legacy of resistance lives on as old struggles link to new and students in historically black universities still feel marginalised. 

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“Protests at South Africa’s universities didn’t suddenly start in 2015 with the Fees Must Fall movement. Students at poorer institutions that cater almost exclusively for black students, such as the Cape Peninsula University of Technology, Fort Hare University and the Tshwane University of Technology, have been protesting routinely against rising fees and the cost of higher education since 1994. But their protest action was largely ignored and often didn’t make headlines beyond regional newspapers,” write Nuraan Davids and Yusef Waghid on The Conversation website. 

Now, the exclusion continues to be felt by mostly black students studying at historically white and black universities following the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, when learning moved to online platforms. 

Asanda Benya, a senior lecturer at the University of Cape Town and a member of the Covid-19 Higher Education Working Group and the National Alliance, has called the experiences of online learning for tertiary students “abysmal”. Benya has cited some of the challenges as being “a lack of infrastructure in most communities, expensive data for students who do research, those who need more than just the zero-rated university online platforms. Even data for students needing to upload assignments to zero-rated university sites.”

Even in a post-apartheid society, the lives of poor black South Africans don’t seem to matter much to the state, as is evident by the provision of basic education. In some no-fee schools, pupils still die by drowning in pit toilets. Some drop out of school in large numbers. A New Frame report shows how schools in the Eastern Cape struggled to reopen during the coronavirus outbreak because they lacked sanitation facilities. Inequality and poverty continue to dog the education system.

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Scourge of unemployment

Verwoerdian policy makers would no doubt rejoice at the sight of black youth and graduates struggling to find employment. South African university graduates are willing to take menial jobs because of the dearth of suitable employment despite being highly educated, finds a previous New Frame story.

Anita Cloete says in a paper titled Youth Unemployment in South Africa: A Theological Reflection Through the Lens of Human Dignity that young people feel alienated and betrayed by the government, as their lives have not changed for the better since 1994.

New Frame has found previously that TVET colleges fail mostly black students from disadvantaged backgrounds. And a sizeable number of these students, most of them from disadvantaged backgrounds, have been waiting for their qualification certificates since 2010.

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Hlatshwayo says, “students know TVET in this country, at least in their current state, is the place where dreams go to die.” Starting with funding, offices, classes, capacity, the people who teach, commitment to the colleges, making sure the administration side is functioning, infrastructure… everything about TVET deserves to be restructured, writes Hlatshwayo.

Based on the challenges facing young people today, it’s clear that the fight for quality education, as reflected in June 1976, must continue. Young people are duty-bound to be the architects of their own future, and that cannot happen without proper education.

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