Interview: Sifiso Ndlovu on the Soweto Youth Uprising (I)





                                                                                                                                                                       [Photo: lubilub/gettyimages]

In this episode of our interview series, our host Lynda Iroulo talks to Prof. Dr. Sifiso Ndlovu, Professor of History at the University of South Africa and executive director of the South African Democracy Education Trust.

Listen to part I of the interview, as Prof. Ndlovu talks about how he experienced the Soweto Youth Uprising in June 1976 as a 14-year-old boy, the role of the Afrikaans language in education, and how an initial dissatisfaction led to a historic event.

Find an abridged transcription of the interview below or listen to the full one here:

Prof. Sifiso Ndlovu

Lynda: Professor Ndlovu, it’s great to have you here. I was impressed to hear that the uprising by the Soweto youths did not actually begin on June 16, 1976. So tell us, when did it all start?

Ndlovu: The dominant narrative claims that the Soweto uprisings were spontaneous as if we woke up one day on June 16 and decided to stand up against the oppressive Apartheid regime. I do understand why that narrative is dominant. It is due to the view that, as Africans, we don’t have agency, and in particular our children don’t have it. It is thought that there must be someone who pushes them from behind and influences them. So you have to come up with an easy and simplistic view that these kids were out of their minds and this was something that just happened out of the blue. I was about 14 years old then. After using English as a medium of instruction during our first year at secondary school, we were shocked to discover that we now were required to use Afrikaans, which, for us, was really the language of the oppressor.

Lynda: There are several African writers who have spoken about the fact that English is still the colonizers’ language and how they should not be speaking it. For you at the age of 14, what was it about Afrikaans that let you think you did not want it as a medium of instruction in your school?

Ndlovu: I did primary school in my own mother tongue. So when I went to high school, I was compelled to switch from using my mother tongue isiZulu to English in secondary school. In the second year of secondary school I was compelled to change again and now use Afrikaans. So in terms of education that doesn’t make sense, because it means that in three years I was using three mediums of instruction. For us, as young as we were, we knew that both languages were imposed on us as languages of the colonizers. But then again, I was 13 years old back then. I was supposed to be just like any other kid, but I was starting to think in these abstract terms.

Lynda: Which leads me to my next question: Most 14-year-olds are not thinking about organizing rallies and marches and demonstrations. At that point, you were doing that, even without the realization that at the end of the day, most of you were not going to make it. So how did you go about organizing and calling other people to join in?

Ndlovu: Only when I was a grown up I realized that this is what we were doing. Just thinking matters through and then reasoning that cultural imperialism is really what is at play here.  That is when we started to reason that we might be nerds and upstarts thinking that we know it all, but we were not the only people who were affected. We belonged to the same school, but the senior students had been exonerated, they were using English. The reasoning of the authorities was that it was too late for the senior students to be instructed in Afrikaans, so they let them complete school in English. They were the last group to use it. We then asked our teachers if we could meet the principal so that he could call the school board, the inspectors and those responsible in terms of Bantu education. Education in South Africa was separated into three spheres: Bantu education for us, a department for White education, and a department for both Indians and Coloureds. So we were the third class citizens, while the Indians and Coloreds were second-class citizens and the Whites first-class citizens. […]

We then decided during our class discussions that unity must prevail and we must go and conscientise the other students to be part of us because we were facing the common enemy, that is, Afrikaans as a medium of instruction. We eventually won them over, but in time we realized that we had been running around in circles discussing this issue. And using passive resistance as a weapon was not effective. We had to go above the ground now and let it be known throughout the schooling system that we were dissatisfied. That was then in May when we went out in public and went on strike officially as a school. The next level was to conscientise the other schools in order to join us. So we mandated some of the students to be our leaders and go establish a working relationship with the other schools. We were successful, but unlike us, their parents convinced them to go back to the classroom within a week or two. We then went back to the drawing board and decided to address the elephant in the room as a next step – that is, the senior students. They were carrying on with their education as if nothing was happening. Instead of providing us with their leadership, they were selling out in our eyes. It was now already June and they were writing their half-yearly examination. We said enough is enough and we were going to stop them from that. We were going to show them.

Lynda: At 14.

Ndlovu: (laughs) Yes! Once they were writing their exam, we invaded the classroom and tore up their exam papers and scripts and said ‘Out!’ We caught them off-guard and they then suddenly realized that this issue was serious, and they joined us. Then there was structure and organization. They said that amongst us, there should be representatives that would go to all the high schools in Soweto and mobilize them to join our struggle. That was when the organization of students sort of jelled because they called a meeting consisting of a committee of those students who were seniors, who were not affected, but who sympathized with us. They met with the guys that we had mandated to represent us on the 12th or 13th of June. It was during those deliberations that the committee took the decision to go out on Wednesday, the 16th of June and march to the regional offices of the Bantu Education Department to hand them over a memorandum that reflected our grievances as students. And then it was all systems go that we would be marching on that day. All the schools in Soweto would really be united and it was just going to be a peaceful march. We would drop the memorandum at the regional offices of the authorities and after that, we didn’t know what would happen. One didn’t know that, actually, we were making history. Up until today, that day is really etched in the memory of our history of South Africa.

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