On 16 June 2017, it will be 41 years since the Soweto uprising. On that early winter morning, between 10 000 – 20 000 high school students protested and encountered large scale police brutality. Many would lose their lives before the day ended.
Why were the high school students protesting?
There were many justifiable reasons for protest action. The policies of Apartheid had subjected the majority of South Africans to second class citizenship across a large range of areas. In 1974, it was further legislated that black schools use a 50:50 mix of Afrikaans and English as languages of instruction. This was too much for the students to bear. Some students stopped attending school from as early as April and then a mass protest was planned for 16 June 1976.
Fast forward to 2017
As a Senior Lecturer in the College of Accounting at UCT, I have been well placed to observe and participate in some of the recent protest action. Students and others are once again finding their voice around issues related to financial accessibility, gender violence and curriculum reform. This is not a student movement limited to South Africa, as many global universities are currently debating these issues. On a personal note, I believe that God has placed me around young people who are setting the trajectory of their lives. I am regularly challenged to personally respond to South Africa’s educational challenges, remembering that Jesus didn’t come to make a difference, but to be the difference.
What is the role of protesting?
Challenging the status quo is not an easy undertaking. Although many may sympathise with those who are oppressed, fighting on their behalf usually comes at a cost. Can you imagine the conversations that occurred in June 1976? Much sympathy for the high school students who now needed to learn Mathematics in Afrikaans from Grade 7 onwards, but how much action? How many prepared to inconvenience themselves to help those who were being oppressed?
Herbert Simon, a winner of the Nobel Prize for Economics as well as one of the founders of Artificial Intelligence, wrote a letter to his children who were occupying a building at the University of California, Berkeley in the 1960’s. This letter contained a “Manual of Tactics” for successful revolutionary activity and is well worth reading. At one point he makes a crucial distinction between Expressionists and Revolutionists. “For an Expressionist, feelings are more important than the success of the cause. (He is the cousin to the man who boasts, “I sure told him off!”).” He goes on further to explain that “We are all Expressionists part of the time. Sometimes we just want to scream loudly at injustice, or to stand up and be counted. These are noble motives, but any serious revolutionist must often deprive himself of the pleasures of self-expression. He (or she) must judge his actions by their ultimate effects on institutions.”
Protest action is not an end in itself, it must have changed institutions as its end. What change do we need to see in the educational institutions of South Africa? The list is a long one and would include access for all who have met the entrance requirements, a lack of finance should not keep a child back.
So Where To? The revolution continues
In SA, all voices need to be heard and engaged with. I hope that we will seek to understand the different views expressed and also reach a place of challenging our own preconceived thoughts and unchallenged practices. May these thoughts move through the Expressionist phase and move us all to be Revolutionists who seek to change an unequal education system in this country. Nkosi sikelel’ iAfrika.