Featured Image: On 16 June 1976, black high school students revolted against the anti-black education system. Photo: Bongani Mnguni/City Press/Gallo Images
By Masixole Ka Dlamini
It has become a normalised ‘political culture’ to commemorate the 1976 uprising without a critical reflection on and a nuanced understanding and meaning of this historic revolutionary uprising, particularly amongst black youth.
To varying degrees, the 1976 uprisings have been reduced to ‘entertainment events’ and electioneering tools by different political parties. Included in this equation are liberal conservative or so-called historically white universities, well-known for their institutionalised anti-black and anti-poor practices, resistance to change, silencing and victimising radical black student activists calling for de-colonialisation. Ironically, the same universities – UCT, Rhodes, Wits – also commemorate the 1976 revolts and celebrate black radicals like Bantu Biko, often through de-politicised colloquiums and ceremonious name changes. It is important to expose the hypocrisy of ‘liberal democratic institutions’ who shamelessly defend and maintain coloniality. As Sabelo Ndlovu-Gatsheni (Why Decoloniality in the 21 st Century) argues “coloniality must be unmasked, resisted and destroyed because it produced a world order that can only be sustained through a combination of violence, deceit, hypocrisy and lies.
Concerns about the de-politicisation of these Uprisings are not new. Writing in 2015, Andile Mngxitama decried the ‘kwaitofication’ of the uprisings as a deliberate move to erase its links to the ideas of Black Power. It is a carefully crafted narrative that excludes black radical student leaders like Tsietsi Mashinini and Khotso Seatlholo – a narrative that highlights victims of police brutality whilst underpaying the radical decolonial orientation of the 1976 generation and the influence of Black Consciousness as an ideological framework that informed the revolutionary agency of black students at the time.
This ‘Kwaitofication’ of 1976 inevitably entrenches a liberal reformist narrative that the revolts were only about resisting the imposition of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction. The limitation of this narrative, in the first instance, is that it does not locate Bantu Education within a broader context of apartheid as a colonial project. It pays even less attention to black organising and resistance before the actual uprisings.
Secondly, it is silent about violent land dispossession, colonial-apartheid economic patterns, property ownership and super-exploitation, forced removals and the notion that black people are temporary sojourners in service of the white economy in the cities.
Taken together, this anti-black systematic oppression and suffering is what inspired the students of 1976 to rebel and die fighting.
In his book, The Soweto Uprising, Noor Nieftagodien argues that “it was evident in the months before and subsequent to the historic march that the struggle against Afrikaans was not simply a problem about language. Encapsulated in the rejection of Afrikaans was a series of grievances about Bantu Education, the dire conditions in the townships,
the suppression of black discontent and the denial of black aspiration. In other words, the system of apartheid had become unbearable”. The fact that, black poor people in the rural areas and townships are still dispossessed and subjected to the same ‘structural genocide’ is what angers and forces the current generation of black radical activists to call for decolonisation.
‘Liberal democratic institutions’ as the modern face of coloniality
A radical counter-narrative of the 1976 Uprising is important if young black people are to understand that colonial-apartheid white Christian capitalist patriarchal heteronormative power structures are still intact and continue to be reproduced and carefully re-inscribed in the post-1994 South Africa through ‘liberal democratic institutions’, effectively making these institutions the modern face of coloniality.
One of the most precise accounts of this modern coloniality is provided by Ndlovu-Gatsheni who makes the case for understanding how the “current ‘global political’ was constructed’ and constituted into the asymmetrical and modern power structure”. This view is echoed by Anibal Quijano in his work, Coloniality and Modern Rationality, who argues that coloniality of power is based upon ‘racial’ social classification of the world population under Eurocentered world power”.
The liberal reformist narrative employed in explaining black revolts and resistance is not only limited to South Africa. It is an international propaganda campaign aimed at deluding dispossessed, oppressed and super-exploited black people into accepting ‘liberal democratic institutions’ as a liberatory juridical-political systems.
I share Ndlovu-Gatsheni’s assertion that “coloniality must not be confused with colonialism. It survived the end of direct colonialism. In ‘post-colonies’ it continues to affect the lives of people, long after direct colonialism and apartheid have been dethroned”. This is clearly evident in how ‘liberal democratic institutions’ were installed in the African context and the global South. The spread or rather the forced installation of ‘liberal democracy’ informed by the democratic peace thesis came as a result of a change in the foreign policy of Euro-American powers in the aftermath of the cold war – a move occasioned by the realisation that direct-colonialism and dictatorship lack the legitimacy required to sustain and reproduce Euro-American coloniality. The Washington Consensus and Structural Adjustment Programmes along, with their conditionalities were part of these endevours.
It is often argued that prevailing racialised power relations (white owned economy) and structural oppression and super-exploitation of blacks in South Africa is mainly the result of colonialism, the legacy of apartheid and the lack of the political will from the black ruling political elites.
This narrative holds logic only if one adheres to the idea that the dawn of ‘liberal democracy’ through a negotiated settlement dismantled the colonial-apartheid structural patterns and left us with only a sore ‘legacy’. The implicit assumption is that, in the post-1994 period, what we are dealing with is a mere legacy of colonialism and apartheid, while in actual fact, we are struggling against a system that reinvented itself through ‘liberal democratic institutions’.
To borrow from Ramon Grosfoguel (The Epistemic Decolonial Turn), “we continue to live under the same colonial power matrix”. Reformist programmes in their nature do not change power structures nor give birth to new political systems but rather reproduce old power structures and integrates a few selected blacks to sit at the table and give the system a ‘human face’.
The deceptive power of the ‘Kwaitofication’ discourse cannot be downplayed. It is important for the current generation of black radical activists and black youth to build counter-narratives and challenge any discourse that seeks to pacify and demobilise their revolutionary agency in organising and changing the oppressive conditions that
have become normalised beneath the cloak of a better life for all.