June 16 1976-The Spirit Lives

By Dr Lehlohonolo Kennedy Mahlatsi

June 16, A day that changed the course of history 

THE events of June 16 1976 that rocked our country reinforced the people’s consciousness of the fact that their united refusal to be ruled by a minority was a crucial condition towards mustering a reliable offensive against oppression. The youth, who this time were in the van of the upsurge, demonstrated to our country and the world that Apartheid was not a monolith that could not be moved. In this way June 16 became a milepost in our difficult path towards liberation. June 16 upsurge will go down in the annals of history of South Africa as a day of wholesale massacre of innocent, peaceful, unarmed children demonstrators by the bloody and murderous police of a racist regime.

The blood of the thousands of young martyrs butchered in cold blood in the streets of Soweto and elsewhere in our country is still calling. We remember young Hector Peterson, Steve Biko and thousands of our fallen militants and we say: “Your blood has watered the seed and that you did not die in vain”. The spirit of June 16 lives on and its generation was marching at the head of the column wavering the banner of our fighting youth. They refused to be cowed down by the racists and vowed not to submit to the evil system of white minority regime. We are inspired by the uncompromising stand of the young hero, Solomon Mahlangu, the courage of the young lion of Chiawelo-Gordon Dikebu, the bravery of Telle Mogoerane, Semano Jerry Mosololi, Marcus Thabo Motaung, Motso Obadi Mogabudi, one of the outstanding commanders of Umkhonto We Sizwe, Richard Barney Molokoane and many gallant fighters who have made a supreme sacrifice for the liberation of our country.

A most significant feature of this upsurge is the persistence with which the youth in particular maintained their revolutionary buoyancy in the face of the regime’s response to the Soweto revolt, which was perhaps more vicious than any in our history of struggle. The mass killings on the streets, the torture and murder in the jails, and the administrative actions against all forms of opposition, have been more intensive than in the post-Sharpeville and post-Rivonia periods. Yet the terror had not created a mood of defeatism or submission; on the contrary all the signs showed that the spirit of defiance and search for ways of hitting enemy continued.

Historical materialism taught us that during popular upsurges, the people themselves provide an astonishing amount of new material for an appraisal of the slogans of revolutionary parties. One of the greatest revolutionaries Cde Vladimir Lenin wrote in 1906 that the Russian revolution is proceeding along a hard and difficult road. Every upsurge, every partial success is followed by defeat, bloodshed and outrage committed by the autocracy against the champions of freedom. But after every “defeat” the movement spreads, the struggle becomes more intense, ever larger masses of people are drawn into the fight, more classes and groups of people participate in it. What Lenin observed regarding the upsurges in Russia applies, mutatis mutandis, to our own protracted struggle in South Africa.

The intensity of the Soweto events reflects the development over the years of these basic people’s reaction to the growing crisis of Apartheid. At the political level, unbroken efforts by the South African Communist Party (SACP) and the liberation movement headed by the African National Congress (ANC), maintained that spirit of resistance, and helped lay a foundation for the growth of the heightened revolutionary mood which was in evidence. And, among large numbers of the new militants there were a growing awareness of the liberating ideas of Marxism-Leninism and a search for the correct politics of social revolution. The Soweto uprisings taught the new generation of fighting youth the need to become part of an organised national liberation force, the need to create well-organised underground networks, and the need to learn the skills required if the enemy is to be dealt with effectively. The Soweto events became an important launching pad for raising the struggle to a new level.

The intensiveness and ingenuity of the youth in particular, showed boundless revolutionary imagination. Throughout the period, tactics were varied and new forms of maintaining the pressure were found. At the beginning, the children of Soweto simply faced police bullets and flushed away the tear gas with water, or bravely hurled back the cannisters. Soweto demonstrated the myth that the government’s security forces were able to destroy the people’s revolutionary spirit. An indelible mark has been made on the revolutionary and political consciousness of our people by the Soweto events. They raised the level of the people’s preparedness and willingness to sacrifice to a higher level, enhancing enormously the striking power of the liberation movement.

In the early 1970s, the racist regime was facing a crisis of considerable magnitude, which found dramatic expression in the upsurge which hit headlines in June 16. Our youth have shown unambiguously their readiness to sacrifice and, if need be, to die in the struggle against the minority regime. Our strong and experienced working class responded magnificently to the call for political general strikes which involved about a quarter of a million workers since June 16, and inflicted great damage on the apartheid economy. In the Cape the Coloured youth and workers joined hands with their African brothers and sisters at a time when the regime was trying desperately to drive a wedge between them.

The events of Soweto uprisings were not isolated happenings. They had their roots in the crisis which had been building up at every level of the socio-economic structure. South Africa has suffered not only from the general crisis of the imperialist west, of which it was part, but also from special contradictions inherent in the Apartheid framework. Inflation was rampant, but it had hit the overwhelming black majority with an especially vicious effect.

From the early 1970s the Black working class responded to deteriorating economic conditions and to the growing gap between white and black incomes by strike action in every part of the country, involving hundreds of thousands of workers. Long before Soweto, the youth engaged in sporadic acts of defiance in the schools and in the universities. In other parts of the country many acts of resistance were recorded against the apartheid colonial draconian laws, which empowered it to remove settled African communities from one part of the country to another.

The students and participants in the 1976 student uprisings changed the history of our country radically and contributed enormously in changing the direction of the national democratic revolution. The class of ’76 remains the pride of our nation and their selfless contribution to the struggle has inspired the generation of young men and women who came thereafter. The gains we have scored in youth mobilisation and organisation provide a basis for greater progress toward the emergence of a society which will defend and promote the genuine interests of our youth.

Almost overnight the Soweto generation finally enabled the liberation movement to breach the barriers by which the enemy had sought to separate it from the masses. The enemy which by design and fortuity had deprived the movement of the generation of the mid-sixties to the mid-seventies then unwittingly threw into the ranks of the revolution an army of youth whose anger and courage knew no bounds. Within the ranks of Umkhonto we Sizwe and under the tutelage of the MK veterans they proudly absorbed the heritage of struggle that resided in the various formations of our national liberation movement and were awarded the title of June 16 Detachment.

The scientific methodology in the study of youth problems is founded on the Marxist-Leninist theory of society. In its approach to the problems of the younger generation, Marxism-Leninism regards youth as an integral part of society, a part of definite classes. The Marxist-Leninist approach to youth is, first and foremost, a class approach. Speaking about the participation of students in the revolutionary movement, Lenin said that “the students would not be what they are if their political grouping did not correspond to the political grouping of society as a whole”.

The principles of educating youth are: Teach them to grasp Marxism-Leninism and to overcome petit-bourgeois consciousness. Teach them to have discipline and organisation and to oppose anarchism, opportunism and libertarianism in the organisation. Teach them to penetrate resolutely into the lower levels of practical work and to oppose looking down on practical experience. Teach them to become close to the workers and the poor, to serve them resolutely, and to oppose the consciousness of looking down on the workers and the poor.

Youth constitutes part of society, it’s a rising generation which has definite features, wants and interests, which are peculiar to their age. In a society divided into exploiter and exploited classes, however, in a society torn by irreconcilable contradictions, there can be no such thing as youth in general; there is only the young generation of one or other class or social group. Under capitalism there are the bourgeois youth, and the proletarian youth. Capitalism has brought untold miseries to humanity. It is a system failure which is not in line with the principle of sustainable development and poses a threat not only to the present generation of young women and men but to the future generation as well.

When the youth and the whole nation are mobilised, organised and united, the last vestiges of the Apartheid Colonialism will be defeated. Each young person must shoulder this responsibility. The task facing our young women and men is to acquire knowledge and grasp the historical significance of the struggle for liberation in our country. The low level of understanding or ignorance will inevitably make them to believe what they are told by unscrupulous elders and quarrelsome factionalists, who place their selfish individual interests above the masses. Looking back, 42 years in retrospect, we salute the generation of the Youth of 1976 and vow to intensify the struggle for socio-economic emancipation in honour of their living memories.

Dr Lehlohonolo Kennedy Mahlatsi is SACP Free State PEC Member and ANC Member. 

He writes in his personal capacity

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