Honouring the 16 June 1976 contingent: People’s Education for People’s Power in South Africa’s transition to democracy

Blade Nzimande, General Secretary, Umsebenzi Online, 18 June 2008

During this week and for the rest of this month, our country will be celebrating the role of our youth in the struggle for national liberation and reconstruction of our country. Indeed the SACP wishes to pay tribute to the class of 1976, and all the subsequent youth generations who have played a truly heroic role in these struggles.

In our last edition we wrote about the tasks and challenges of building street, block and village committees as part of building people's power in the locality, and as an important platform to fight the scourge of crime in our country. We located this task within the overall context of some of the complexities and challenges facing (former) national liberation movements now in power. Of particular importance in this struggle is the continuing role of youth from within the ranks of the working class.

In essence what we are calling for in building street committees is a return (but not a mechanical one) to the struggle to build working class-led, people's power in the locality as the key platform upon which to consolidate the advances made in Polokwane to advance and deepen the national democratic revolution.

If there is one major lesson from the 1976 student uprisings, it is that they were the foundation for the mass semi-insurrectionary struggles of the 1980s and provided the platform upon which we built organs of people's power that spearheaded the final onslaught against of the apartheid regime. In these struggles it was the working class and the youth, particularly that drawn from the ranks of the workers and the poor, that played a leading role on this front. As we commemorate 16 June 1976, we still expect the youth from the urban and rural working class and the poor playing a more prominent role, as we consolidate the gains of the 1994 democratic breakthrough.

Youth is not homogenous: Socialism for the youth, and youth for socialism

Much as it is important to seek to unite all strata of our youth, it is absolutely imperative to remember that youth is not a homogenous social and political category, but is made up of youth drawn from various classes in society. Since 1994 there has been a further stratification of our youth, as a result of the contradictory realities of, on the one hand, upward mobility of black youth, and, on the other hand, the high levels of unemployment amongst youth, including retrenchments and casualisation. The opening up of new opportunities since 1994, there is a growing layer of black youth drawn from the sections of a rapidly upwardly mobile black middle classes and a small, albeit growing layer of an emergent black section of the bourgeoisie.

Addressing the problems facing South African youth today in essence calls for intensified and not lessened focus on youth drawn from the ranks of the workers and the poor. The intensity of the many social ills facing our youth today continues to be acutely felt by youth drawn from the ranks of the working class and the poor; the scourge of HIV/AIDS, unemployment, casualisation and poverty are all acutely felt by youth drawn from the ranks of the (urban and rural) workers and the poor.

It has now become fashionable to talk about 'youth' devoid of its class content, mainly as a means to advance and privilege the notion that the solution to the problems facing youth is narrow BEE and affirmative action. This obscures the fact that it is not narrow BEE and affirmative action that is the primary solution to the problems facing our youth today, but a radical restructuring of our economy in a manner that will prioiritise the interests of the workers and the poor of our country. BEE and affirmative action has on the whole benefitted the youth that is already upwardly mobile and has left the majority of urban and rural poor youth in the same socio-economic condition as before.
The current capitalist trajectory, with all its claimed 'growth credentials', has hardly transformed the socio-economic conditions facing the overwhelming majority of the youth of our country. It is not only black youth whose condition has not improved, if not deteriorated, but the overwhelming majority of young black women has remained at the bottom of the ladder of the current 'growth' path in our country.

The youth of 1976 never fought for the co-option of a small section of the youth into the capitalist echelons of society, but for the radical transformation of the South African economy in line with the vision of the Freedom Charter.

For our youth, in 1976 and today, their struggle was at its core a struggle not just against national oppression, necessary as this was, but a struggle for a radical transformation of the South African economy. To us this can be nothing else but a struggle for socialism. That is why when we reconstituted the Young Communist League a few years back, we did this under the slogan, 'Socialism for the Youth, and Youth for Socialism'.

People's education for people's power

Much as the front of struggle opened by the June 1976 uprisings laid a further basis for the overall offensive against the apartheid regime, we dare not lose sight of the fundamental issue raised by the 1976 uprising, that of a call for the complete abolition of the bantu education system, a call that laid the foundation for the later, and more advanced, struggles for people's education for people's power. We cannot reduce the 1976 student uprisings to the single issue of the transformation of education, as the impact of these struggles went far beyond that, but at the same time we should not obscure the meaning of 1976 for educational transformation.

The above should also be a reminder that much as the national democratic revolution is an overarching struggle to liberate and reconstruct our country, at the same time it is made up of a multiplicity of dynamic sectoral struggles, in education, in health, in the communities, in the factories, students, youth, women's struggles and so on. In other words, progressive sectoral struggles are an integral part, and not a diversion, from the national democratic revolution.

We have indeed come a long way since 1976, with the 1994 democratic breakthrough providing a unique opportunity to implement the vision of the Freedom Charter that the 'doors of learning shall be open'. Indeed we have made many advances on the education front. We have done away with the more than 18 apartheid education departments, we have outlawed racially and ethnically based schools; universities are now open to all, irrespective colour, with the establishment of the national student financial aid scheme for higher education; and we have laws and institutions that create space for democratic participation by parents, teachers, students and communities in the running of the education system.

However despite all the above advances and many others, our education is still beset with many problems and challenges. We only wish to highlight only two for purposes of our argument here. The first and most insidious are the class glaring and continuing inequalities in our education system, that unfortunately often reproduce the racial inequalities of the apartheid era, given the coincidence between class and race in our society. The second is the progressive demobilisation of the motive forces that were in the forefront of the struggle for educational transformation, especially between 1976 and 1994.

The previously white education institutions have done relatively well since 1994, whilst many of the schools and universities that previously served black people have remained stagnant, and in some instances, have experienced serious decline both in terms of resources and quality of outputs.

Class inequalities and class bias towards the middle classes continues to afflict our education system across the board. For instance apart from the fact that it is largely black middle class students who have accessed the better resourced former white schools, even progressive curriculum interventions, like the 2005 curriculum changes, have largely benefitted the better resourced schools, as they are the only ones with the necessary text-books and other resources to properly implement these changes. Even the public discourse on educational transformation has been disproportionately dominated by middle class concerns, with the voices of township and rural education communities generally muted.

For example, researchers recently conducted into the cohort of young people who undertook the matriculation examinations in 2003. Of this cohort, with almost 1 million learners entering the system in Grade 1, only 7% of these children would emerge from the system in a position to apply for study at an institution of higher education. The overwhelming majority of the learners who do achieve a matric exemption are children from the middle classes. The probability of a working class child (overwhelmingly black) achieving a university exemption is much less than 1%. This is indeed a deeply disturbing state of affairs.

Amongst other things, the above situation calls for an accelerated focus on provision of basic minimum resources for all our education institutions, including elimination of the many infrastructural backlogs in schools and other educational institutions, mainly those serving black children and students. One possible method of achieving this is to redirect, at least for the next five years, most the extended public works programmes towards the provision of such educational infrastructure.

Whilst government has correctly identified issues of quality as being at the heart of our education system, this should not be seen in isolation from the challenge of providing the necessary infrastructure. As part of reviewing our performance in the education system we need to undertake a public evaluation of how we are doing as a country towards the attainment of the United Nations Millenium Development goals.

The ANC Polokwane conference resolved, inter alia, that education must be treated as a priority, with the ANC NEC January 8 statement correctly calling for 'Education must be elevated from being a departmental issue, or even a government issue, to a societal issue - on that occupies the attention and energy of all our people'. To this end the ANC is calling for a campaign centred on a 'Code for Quality Education' which outlines the role, responsibilities and discipline required from all the key stakeholders in the education system. This Code must contain what the ANC further calls 'non-negotiables' in education where departmental officials, teachers, learners, parents and communities commit themselves to certain basic minimum goals and performance standards in order to accelerate the transformation of education.
The idea of a commitment to key 'non-negotiables' (teachers must teach, learners must learn, departmental officials must carry out their duties fully in support of our educational objectives, parents to actively participate in school governing bodies, and for communities to ensure that every school-going child goes to school and protect our schools) is indeed an important step towards revitalisation of our education system.

But this 'Code of Conduct' will require that we reclaim the spirit and vision of the 1976 student uprisings and the subsequent struggles for people's education. This means that such a code and implementation of these 'non-negotiables' will not be realised unless we focus on building local education committees throughout the country as organs of people's education for people's power. The single biggest weakness in our struggles to transform education has been the large-scale demobilisation of our communities in participating and taking forward our education agenda. The key challenge therefore is the remobilisation of our communities!

It is through this that we shall truly honour and protect the legacy of the class of 1976!


COSATU President Sdumo Dlamini at YCL Youth Day Celebrations

Durban, KwaZulu Natal, 21 June 2008

Let me first express my heartfelt gratitude for the invitation to speak on this important occasion. I should also hasten to pass on the regards of the COSATU Central Executive Committee, the National Office Bearers, and the membership of the Federation. We join you in marking this important event in the calendar of our history.

It is now trite to observe that June 16 1976 changed the history of this country for the better. On that fateful day, the youth of our country unleashed an unstoppable historic momentum that heralded the new dispensation in South Africa. We pay homage to the June 16 generation, the generation that came before and after that historic day. Today’s celebrations are an important reminder of where we come from as a people and a movement. It is our duty to keep the memory of the struggle alive, more so when a lot is being taken for granted.
Today also reminds us to cherish, nurture and support our youth for without them we do not deserve our future. Comrade Oliver Tambo once remarked that a nation that does not cherish its youth does not deserve its future. We remind ourselves of these words of wisdom not to dwell on the past but to highlight challenges facing us in the current epoch of the revolution. As a movement we can do more to challenge young people to play an active role in the unfolding process of transformation. Youth development is our only guarantee that the revolution will be in safe hands. For that reason all the formations of the movement should take this task much more seriously than we have done to date.

The youth day celebration comes at an important juncture of our national democratic revolution. It goes without saying that we should properly reflect on the achievements and challenges of our revolution. It is now fifteen years since the democratic breakthrough. The youth of ‘76 and generations of activists fought for the realization of the vision of the Freedom Charter for a non-racial, non-sexist and democratic South Africa. As we march resolutely forward we must always ask ourselves how far we have gone to realize this vision of an inclusive and egalitarian society. We must measure ourselves not so much by the distance we have travelled from our troubled past, important as that may be, but by the yardstick of how far are we from realizing the goals of the Charter.

There is no doubt that South Africa is a better place than before, yet there is no guarantee that tomorrow will be better than today, unless we confront the challenges facing us. The promise of an inclusive, democratic and egalitarian society is still far from realized. The racial, class and gender cleavages of our oppression continue to define the social and economic landscape of South Africa. Wealth is still in the hands of a white minority and the black working class has been battered by the forces of economic liberalisation. Today, inequality, especially income inequality between Africans, is rising, while an elite few is benefiting from the process of change.

Of course the situation could be worse, had it not been for the intervention of the democratic government to extend basic services to the poor. We acknowledge the important strides made by our movement and government to address the historical grievances of our people. However we should not rest on past laurels as our society is experiencing difficult and seemingly intractable problems.

It is against this background that we should read the outcome of Polokwane and the conferences of the various formations of the democratic movement, not least the COSATU 9th national Congress. Our people are impatient for change, especially in the context of an elite which is amassing wealth and opportunities. The leadership has been given a tough mandate and the burden of expectation on our shoulders is high.
Correctly, our people demand that the movement that they have trusted for so long, and entrusted with government power for the last fifteen years, should do more to change their material conditions. Otherwise the democratic victory would amount to a hollow victory and all we would have achieved is to replace a white with a black government. It is in this regard that we in COSATU believe that the second decade of freedom should bring tangible changes in the lives of the downtrodden.

This has been a tough year for our people. We have been confronted by a slew of bad news on the economic front. Not only has economic growth slowed down, we are buffeted by high food, fuel and energy prices. As if that was not enough, the Reserve Bank has added salt to the wound by increasing interest rates – a futile exercise since it does not address the source of high inflation. For the unemployed the prospect of finding employment is dimmer than before. For the poor the prospect of decent life seems elusive. The nation’s confidence has further been shattered by power cuts and recent xenophobic attacks against our brothers and sisters from other African countries.

In this context the temptation for despair and despondency is very high. But as every union organizer will tell you – don’t agonise, organize! It is only through collective effort that we can pull through this quagmire. Retreating into defeatist, cynical and fatalistic reading of the situation will lead us to a dead end. We believe in the future of this country and are committed to make it better.

However making South Africa better is a matter of choosing correct policies and assiduously implementing the plan of action. Will or hope alone is not enough to confront the challenges facing us. Burying our heads in the sands is an option left to the arm-chair revolutionaries – it is a luxury we cannot afford.

Against this background, we need a PLAN to translate the aspirations of our people expressed in Polokwane and other forums into real action. We cannot wait for the elections - our people demand answers now! We are called upon as the alliance to unveil a Plan as to how we will respond to the daunting tasks of creating a better life for all! While our people understand that Rome was not built in one day, their patience is not endless. One day they will rudely remove us from power; we must remember we serve at their behest.

We must go back to organize in our communities because it is through mobilization that people become actors in the stage of revolution. Without organization, despair, disillusionment and disgruntlement will creep in. This creates fertile ground, as we have seen recently with the xenophobic attacks, for reactionary forces to take advantage of the situation.

The key message that I want to leave with you today comrades is that we must mobilize, organize and educate. Further, we need a Plan to take forward the transformation of our society.

On behalf of COSATU I wish you success in all your work and pledge our unwavering support to the cause of organizing young people. Equally we expect from you to encourage your members to belong to COSATU unions in the workplace. We must rebuild the workers-student-and youth alliance of the 1980s. We must rebuild the all-round cadres of the movement of the 1980s.

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