Building a cohesive democracy fitting tribute to the class of ’76

Published Jun 16, 2024


By Saths Cooper

Today marks the signal turning point in our troubled history, when schoolchildren were prepared to sacrifice themselves in Soweto and other labour reservoirs that we still call townships, in united peaceful protest in the face of horrific oppression.

June 16, 1976, changed the nature of liberation, resulting in rising levels of brutality, the indiscriminate killing of unarmed protesters, and other forms of violence by the apartheid state, the remnants of which still remain.

The imposition of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction was the spark that lit the fire of outrage against the entire system of oppression and exploitation. June 16 was not just about ending Bantu education; it was about rekindling the struggle for political and economic emancipation. Our erstwhile liberation organisations know how they benefited from June 16 despite the derision of children retaliating with stones against well-armed police and the military.

June 16 also caused those at the helm of that crime against humanity to rethink their approach, hastening their overtures to black leadership in various spheres to join with them in their experiments of control: control of the mind, the narrative, physical needs and other aspects of our lives.

Our Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) reported in October 1998 that “apartheid could only have happened if large numbers of enfranchised, relatively privileged South Africans either condoned or simply allowed it to continue”, and urged that we “examine with honesty and with humility the role we have played in the past and, more importantly, what role we can – as individuals and as institutions – play in the future”.

Many of us have taken the human rights enshrined in our oft-praised liberal democratic Constitution for granted – often paying lip service to them – thus becoming indifferent to oppression, exclusion, inequality and inequity that persists, especially for the vast majority who are under 30 years of age.

Tragic it is then that the unfettered agency that the children of 1976 so clearly demonstrated has been steadily replaced by what is often misinterpreted as youth apathy. In a deliberately crafted environment of socio-economic exclusion, manufactured poverty, the pre-eminence of the self-serving few, a maelstrom of unremitting hopelessness and engineered helplessness creates the conditions for further division, mistrust and desperation.

Successive South African education systems aimed at creating a compliant, dependent individual, bereft of any sense of autonomy and efficacy, but nothing could have prepared us for a 30% matric certificate, bruited among the terrible success of our democracy.

As we recover from the election season and the many knife-edges we have been unduly subjected to, let us pause to remember that past so that we don’t repeat its mistakes as those in power have tended to do.

People don’t forget and will make us remember, as they did when they chose not to trust any party with a majority, forcing our all-consuming political system to come together for the sake of all of us, saving us from their navel-gazing entitlement and studied indifference of the mess they’ve wreaked all around us.

Desperate actions of those who are on the periphery of our democratic system must give us pause to consider the inability of most of our leaders to deal with the evident human crises in our midst.

We cannot continue to be bystanders when our country and our world is deteriorating at such a fast pace. We have to regain our common humanity and engender a sense of common purpose in restoring that belonging that our children demand of us.

There is the saying that Umuthi ugotshwa usemanzi (A tree is bent while it is still wet). Let’s ensure that our children reap a future that learns from both its distant and near past so that we can truly say, in this the 30th anniversary of our democracy, that we will commit to growing sturdy trees from our saplings through our good example.

Can we rise above the marks of our origins and specific subjective conditions, to engage meaningfully in realities beyond our usual experiential base? Can we regain our lost compassion for those who are invisible, who are everywhere, and who will simply not go away? Can we contribute meaningfully in the quest for a cohesive society that goes beyond language, tribe, ethnicity and belief?

Can we celebrate our diversity and common humanity? The children who sacrificed for us on June 16, 1976, expect nothing less. There but for the grace of … go each of us.

Prof Saths Cooper is President of the Pan African Psychology Union, a former leader of the Black Consciousness Movement and a member of the 1970s group of activists.