‘Live the dream the June 16th youth died for’: The reductive and ahistorical revisionism of the class of ’15

By Thato Magano (@ThatoMagano)

After seeing the controversial Channel O ad, Thato contends that at the very moment that the South African consciousness is captured by student led intersectional movements such as #RhodesMustFall, #RhodesSoWhite, #OpenStellies or #TransformWits, suggesting that the ultimate form of self-actualisation in the attainment of a university degree is insufficient for the totality of Black Conscious actualisation. 


Hecter Pieterson

In South Africa, today, June 16 2015, marks exactly thirty nine years, yes, thirty nine years; not one hundred and thirty nine years BUT an infantile thirty nine years that saw the culmination of an estimated three to ten thousand young people from Soweto take to the streets to protest what was the enforcement of Afrikaans, alongside English, as a compulsory medium of instruction for key subjects in all Black schools through the Bantu Education Act of 1953.

With a Black Consciousness understanding of the far reaching consequences of the enforcement of the language policy on their lives, they saw this as the final brutal act by the system of apartheid to dashing their hopes, their dreams and right to self affirmation. The young people organised, through the South African Students Movement Action Committee (SASMAC) and supported by the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM), to protest this systemic oppression and to call for the recognition of Black power as a rallying call to end the then minister of native affairs and later prime minister, Hendrik Verwoerd’s limiting belief that “Natives [Blacks] must be taught from an early age that equality with Europeans [whites] is not for them.”

At both Naledi and Morris Isaacson High Schools, after addresses by Tebello Motopanyane and Tsietsi Mashinini respectively, the students set out on their jovial, yet disciplined and peaceful march to the Orlando Stadium to make their case. On their way, they were to be met by policemen who would disrupt the peaceful march and go onto to kill an estimated 200 young lives, if not more as the record is contested.

Today, in a democratic South Africa, that day has come to be known as Youth day. A day where we are asked to reflect on that day, thirty nine years ago, and what became a cataclysmic unfolding of events that would see the apartheid government brought to its knees and eventually giving political power back to the Black South African.

Since the dawn of democracy, questions have been raised as to what will be the defining moment of this generation as accusations of a ‘lost generation’ have been levelled, of lacking focus and agency to channel energies into a single defining struggle narrative for this time. Reading articles, opinions and studies, it was seeming as though the provision of a ‘quality education’ had come to define the narrative of the struggle of this time as “a university education is seen as the best ticket out of poverty” and “If you don’t have an education, you don’t have a chance in life” as reflected by Netshiozwe, a “twenty three year old who is a product of the first post-apartheid generation who entered a new and aspiring education system which aimed to heal the economic divisions created by the white-minority government.”

Unveiling sweeping plans for boosting university enrollment and improving vocational colleges, in 2012, the Ministry of Higher Education said “This is an appalling waste of human potential and a potential source of serious social instability” reflecting on the state of education in democratic South Africa.

And it is perhaps within this context that this past Sunday, ChannelO, the South African based Pan-African youth music television station unveiled its new campaign to commemorate the youth of ’76. The ad, developed by Don Dlanga, brother to personality and author, Khaya Dlanga, is a postmodernist ‘reimagining’ on the iconic image of Hector Pieterson’s lifeless body in Mbuyisa Makhubo hands while his sister Antoinette Sithole runs beside them, originally captured by photographer Sam Nzima.

In their effort to capture the ‘zeitgeist’ of this generation, ChannelO and this revisionist ad – where Pieterson’s body is replaced with a graduation gown and cap, the hurriedness of Makhubo is replaced with a satisfactory stride and the unbearably visible anguish on Sithole’s face is replaced with a smile – purports that this is the ‘dream’ the youth of ’76 died for, that this is the ultimate pinnacle of what SASMAC and the BCM wanted to achieve with their protest.

By the end of Sunday already, the ad had indeed found its champions as personalities like Maps Maponyane twitted “Finally someone nailed what Youth day is all about! This is brilliant!,” Lindiwe Mazibuko “This is moving”, while Oarabile Mahole said “That ChannelO ad is doing exactly what it was meant to. Getting the youth to remember and discuss the true meaning behind Youth day”.

However, when I first encountered it, while trolling Instagram, I was left with a deep sense of discomfort at what I felt was its problematic nature and I lacked the words to articulate exactly what about it I found ‘offensive’ as I screen-grabbed and asked friends to help me articulate my discomfort.

While I was struggling with my emotion, fellow dissident voices that reassured me that I was not crazy and ‘hating’ were out, guns blazing on twitter. Poet Lebo Mashile said “The ad is consistent with the overarching post-Aparthied narrative of erasure in the name of feeling good about freedom.” Activist Sivu Siwisa said “The ad is clever, yes but also problematic. It’s very ignorant/dangerous to recreate a violent history to make it palatable for advertising.” and tweleb @FistVoices called it “stupid…and commits political reductivism as if academia is the end goal/true liberation while we are still transforming these institutions that were part of killing Hector”.

Gaining the vocabulary, I found, where one is used to seeing a reminder of the painful legacy that was and still is the struggle for the emancipation of Black life and Black thought, that now it was replaced with a ‘pseudo-utopian’ attainment of a university degree as the ultimate prism for our struggle and told that that is what we all dream of achieving when we involve ourselves in Black Conscious struggle. This left me reeling from a sense of historical revisionism that seeks to bastardise the struggle of the youth of ’76 and what June 16 was and continues to be about. It was a deep violent form of erasure and appropriation I felt because of how unexpected an assault the ad was.

It would have never occurred to many of us that we would have the right to tamper with the memory of such a significant moment in our history. That if we wanted to create an iconic image that captures the mood of our time, we the generation of the ‘free’ South Africa, could surely do better than to rewrite history. This is especially when that history is as contested and as untold. In this context, its (blatantly reductive) reimagining is premature, lazy and harmful to the preservation and assertion of the legacy of Blackness in this country.

The ‘reimagined’ image, while well intentioned and speaking to an equally important contemporary issue, serves an injustice to the legacy of the youth of ’76. It is a form of symbolic annihilation that continues to perpetuate the hegemonic appropriation of significant moments in the Black South African narrative so as to continue the myth of the ‘rainbow nation’. This has been evidenced in the reduction of Heritage Day to National Braai Day by corporate and individual powers who would rather not engage with the difficult aspects of why, in a country with more eleven official language languages and varied ethnic groupings, a single narrative of what our collective expression of heritage is, is a form of colonisation of thought and memory.

If we allow this colonisation of thought by accepting this reductive image as the representation of our collective imagined future, as has happened with Heritage Day, we will be opening the door to a commoditisation of June 16; a commoditisation of our struggles as Black people that has continued to privilege the narrative of the oppressor/master by erasing US and our pain, our triumphs or banality out of our narratives.

“These mechanisms of appropriating and commodifying narratives ends up being a tool for reinforcing prejudices or racism as it reduces the people behind the narrative to a mere cartoon like representation of their realities. It is a great way to ultimately ‘Other’ and objectify entire groups of people by taking something that is dynamic and ever evolving and freezing it for a marketing photo opportunity.”

What the advert also does is reduce the struggle of the ’76 youth to one of access. By imploring on us to “Live the dream the youth of ’76 died for” and within that implying that the ultimate representation of that being a university degree, it suggests that once we all get an education, the systems of oppression that plague Black life will be eradicated and that we would have achieved the end goal of the class of ’76. The attainment of education cannot be the only prism through which we view ’76.

At the very moment that the South African consciousness is captured by student led intersectional movements such as #RhodesMustFall, #RhodesSoWhite, #OpenStellies or #TransformWits, suggesting that the ultimate form of self-actualisation in the attainment of a university degree is insufficient for the totality of Black Conscious actualisation. What these student led movements are showing us is that we want more than just the opening of doors to let us in YET to continue to participate within the systems of oppression.

In the 2014 documentary ‘Some Children are more Equal than Others: Education in South Africa’, academic Nomalanga Mkhize makes the point “Deracialising the South African schooling system did not solve the problem. Deracialising is not transformative. What is transformative is changing the structural problem of how the schooling system was set up in the first place. The problem of black schools which are the majority being schools of poverty and impoverishment, academically, financially and economically”. So the ideal of attaining a degree while we continue to participate within a structurally flawed system is not the dream and certainly not the dream that the youth of ’76 died for.

If we knew our history, we would know that the youth of ‘76 had already told Verwoerd “Down with Afrikaans” and “If we must do Afrikaans, [Prime Minister John] Vorster must do Zulu.” That they knew well enough to disrupt businessman Richard Maponya’s livelihood as they believed that “he exploits us and is a sell out”, seeing him as a collaborator with the system of oppression. If one has ever visited the Hector Peterson Memorial and Museum Centre in Orlando, it would occur to one that the struggle was far deeper than the narrow articulation of getting an education.

If we knew and understood our REAL struggle and OUR dream for self-actualisation, we would know that Sam Nzima only received the copyright to that iconic image in 1998 after the Independent Newspapers Group bought the Argus Group which owned The World, the publication where the picture was originally published. We would know that Nzima does not make a single cent from the many images of his work that are exhibited at the Hector Pieterson Memorial and Museum Centre. That the struggle of artist’s dying as paupers, like Mahlathini and many others, without ownership of their (music) masters speaks to how narrow the articulation of the ’76 dream is as purported by the reimagined Channel O ad.

Yesterday, musician Simphiwe Dana tweeted “I keep looking for a collective outrage and there is none.” In response to her, I twitted “we are only now waking up to the erasure, the violence and the appropriation” because we don’t know where to locate this assault on such a sacred memory of our narrative.

We have not done enough to educate each other on why the youth of ’76 took to the streets. The dream of the class of ’76, of the total actualisation of the Black body, was for a long time a dream deferred. With the revived wave of student led intersectional protest movements, that legacy is being revitalised. The reductive reimagining of the ‘76 cause is detrimental to our commitment to making that dream a reality. We need the reminder, as raw as it is, to continue to drive us in the struggle for the liberation of the Black body in its entirety.

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