Photo: Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images.

Fighting for the Language

Soweto: nostalgia and pure possibility.


Every Revolution evaporates and leaves behind only the slime of a new bureaucracy.
Franz Kafka.

It began as a rebellion against a hostile language. Forty years ago, on the 16th of June, 1976, more than ten thousand schoolchildren from the black township of Soweto, just outside Johannesburg, South Africa, marched against the imposition of Afrikaans as the medium of instruction. The apartheid regime was intensely opposed to English, the pedagogical language preferred by blacks, so its unfortunately named Bantu Education Department, BAD, decreed that subjects such as Mathematics and geography were to be taught in Afrikaans, the lingua franca of the ruling National Party (NP). The students were unwilling to be instructed in a language that they loathed ideologically and in which they lacked the necessary technical facility, so they took to the streets, marching toward a rally at the Orlando football stadium. The apartheid’s security forces responded violently, first by firing teargas into the crowd and then a series of warning shots. The students marched on, undeterred, until the police began using live ammunition, killing two students – Hastings Ndlovu and Hector Pieterson. Within a few short weeks the Soweto uprising spread to more than 100 urban and rural venues in South Africa, much of it motivated by a photograph of Pieterson’s limp body. I do not remember when exactly the Soweto student rebellion arrived in Cape Town, some 1800 kilometers away, it could not have been more than a week or so, but when it did, it changed so much more than the lives of a generation of disenfranchised South Africans, mine included. It changed the direction of our entire society.

The anger at the injustice of living in a racially stratified nation, of being subjected to unequal treatment before the law, of having to endure the structural inequalities of apartheid — forced removals, police raids, impoverished townships, under-resourced schools — acquired, for my generation, a proper name: “Soweto.” It would take another 14 years, but Soweto 1976 signaled not only the determination to oppose the system of apartheid, but to bring it down entirely.

It would take another 14 years, but Soweto 1976 signaled not only the determination to oppose the system of apartheid, but to bring it down entirely.

Barely a teenager when June 1976 exploded, just 6 months into my high school career, I had never been to that sprawling township for which “Soweto” is but a geographical acronym: “Southwestern Townships.” However, when news of Soweto reached Livingstone High School, several thousand kilometers distant, in Cape Town’s southern suburbs, it was immediately, immanently, familiar to me and all those other students at disenfranchised high schools throughout the country. Discrimination, inequity, non-citizenship in the land of our birth — that was the tenor of our lives; that, before Soweto, was our future, as it had been our parents’ and our grandparents’. Soweto demanded that we make South Africa a new place. That was the promise that my generation made to itself and to all those South Africans who opposed apartheid: tomorrow, whenever it might come, we would construct a society completely unlike the one into which we were born.

It is customary now to argue that when Nelson Mandela and the other political prisoners walked out, free men and women, all of them, into the glorious Cape Town sunshine on the 11th of February, 1990, the struggle of the 1976 generation was vindicated. On Cape Town’s Grand Parade, an ebullient, awed, Mandela addressed a joyful nation. The society to which we had committed ourselves to, on that fateful winter day in 1976, had arrived, finally, splendidly, overwhelming South Africans, and, in a different way, the world. If Soweto birthed a political event, the Grand Parade witnessed a canonization, taken to its logical conclusion when Mandela became president in April 1994, the first black president of a democratic South Africa.

Mandela has since died, and with him a whole set of post-apartheid prospects. The relation of Soweto to the Grand Parade, should not be construed as an easy commensurability between one event and another. The 1976 student rebellion marked a sui generis instance of black resistance, one that represented as much a break with the black past as it presented a new set of challenges to the white regime. Occurring a decade after the apartheid state had successfully quelled the political disturbances of the late-1950s to the mid-1960s, Soweto inaugurated a new moment of black radicalism, one that owed little to black anti-apartheid history dominated by the liberation movements. The Soweto generation was in no way beholden to the African National Congress and the Pan African Congress, which tried to oppose the state through peaceful protest and, after that, with a spectacular lack of success, armed rebellion.

Soweto demanded that we make South Africa a new place. That was the promise that my generation made to itself and to all those South Africans who opposed apartheid.

While the ANC has subsequently sought to appropriate the event, the 1976 Soweto student rebellion stands by itself. The Soweto generation imagined a political future in which South Africa was a radically egalitarian, anti-racist society. That vision was intolerable to the NP in 1976 and it has since proven incompatible with the ANC’s commitment to black petit bourgeois nationalism. Soweto and the Grand Parade are two incompatible modes of politics. 1976’s radicalism was betrayed by the policies of 1994 – reconciliation without redistribution, black forgiveness sans white recompense, the ongoing exploitation of the ever-growing black underclass, now poorer, less safe, with less access to healthcare than they did under apartheid. And, irony of ironies, children of the black underclass receive an education that would struggle to meet apartheid standards. Things have gone from BAD to worse.

Mandela’s grand entry onto the Grand Parade and his election as president ended, for millions of black South Africans, in failure, following the usual postcolonial trajectory: the election of the black elite, which quickly made expedient alliances with domestic white business and international capital, and did not improve the daily existence of the black poor. Nevertheless, I am nostalgic (never a smart political response) about Soweto, and I know why. It was a moment of pure possibility. The recognition, the recollection, of pure possibility is always experienced as a paradox. It is precisely because moments such as Soweto are rare that we invest so much in their memory; it is precisely because such events are rare they attain a burnish that the everyday work of politics simply cannot match. So it may very well be that what is precious about an event such as June 1976 is that it is, in the end, and probably was from the beginning, unsustainable. But now, forty years later, in the midst of Kafkaesque despair and the dearth of political alternatives, that place, Soweto, that political event, June, 1976, acquires a new saliency. It offers a glimpse into that rarest of political moments: the opportunity to make history, to claim for a generation a place like no other. In making that claim, the price of the rebellion or the revolution becomes clear. The disappointment that follows the revolution only makes it more poignant, more nostalgic, and, most importantly, more pure.