June 12, 2016
It does not matter that I was only two in 1976. I was not on the streets of Soweto but I remember what happened. This is because the Soweto Uprisings belong to us all and have continued to shape who we are as a country, writes Sisonke Msimang
The memory of 1976 is one of violence and courage and smoke and dust of course, but it is now a collectively owned memory, one that — if taken seriously — implicates us all as we chart the future.
The ANC would like to claim 1976 as its struggle but we know this is only partially true. The ANC was of course the best organised and most powerful voice of black South Africans outside the country and so it became the default home for student activists who fled in the aftermath.
Yet it was the anger and defiance of the black consciousness movement that inspired the students to rebel in the first place. Riled up by the rhetoric of Steve Biko and the mood of defiance he inculcated, their placards spoke of their justified race-based rage. We must accept that 1976 had no party political mother or father: It was influenced by both the black consciousness -inspired atmosphere and the ANC-managed logistical arrangements of the time.
Both the ANC and Black Consciousness movement can take credit (if credit must be taken) for the events of June 16 and those of the subsequent months and then years of protest that followed.
In truth it is South Africans as a collective who must claim the mantle of June 16. Those who witnessed and lived through that day spoke with tongues that would not lie still. Over the years they spoke and spoke and remembered and remembered again and again so that 1976 became a sort of mantra, distilled into hope and outrage. Their insistence on telling and retelling meant the story became a spirit which rose above the country.
In time June 16 became a love-song and a hymn and a war-cry sung to remind those who had no morality that there was a cause mightier than their guns. She fulled protests in places where service delivery was too slow.
And as she grew, June 16 became a warrior urging us into battle. She nursed our wounds after we had fallen. She was a winged spirit who flew when she needed to and soon she landed in the homes and the minds and the hearts of workers and diplomats and bureaucrats in far-flung places.
Soon it was 1985 and the spirit’s winds caused a storm and they called this a state of emergency. Soon she was running again, this time barefoot and faster than Zola Budd.
She ran across the 1990s, moving so quickly that she barely noticed the bullets and the landmines. Instead she kept her eye firmly fixed on Nelson Mandela. She ran and ran until she had freed him and then she kept moving stopping to rest only after she had set up the polling stations and opened the gates for us all.
For twenty years after that the spirit of June 16 ran, although at times she flagged and seemed tired. She fuelled protests in places where service delivery was too slow.
In all of these places the modes of anger were the same and the defiance was just as raw but over time the spirit lost her ability to organise on a mass scale.
But in 2012 when the miners were shot down by police who took orders from men who should have known better, the spirit of 1976 closed her eyes and died. The Spirit of Marikana was born then and the terror of those weeks only made sense if you remembered Wally Mongane Serote’s words “to every birth its blood.” And it soon became clear that in socialist and activist Trevor Ngwane’s words, the spirit of Marikana had come into being to, “haunt the South African ruling class”.
Like Soweto, Marikana now belongs to us all and is a story that has been told and retold.
The new South African state contests the memories of those who protested.
As we do so we must remember that the Spirit of June 16 was non-partisan. This is easy to forget in these contested times. But it is true. The spirit of June 16th was master to all and slave to none.
Our leaders treat history as though it is a weapon rather than a tool with which to learn. Worse, some of our leaders want history to be a noose: They want us to choke on our gratitude but we will not listen to them. Students marched in 1976 and they were directed by their feet and they were driven by a desire for freedom. No single movement can direct a spirit.
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Originally published on Times Live