Our People First: Reclaiming the Spirit of 16 June 1976

‘Id al-Fitr Khutbah at TIP Family Eid Gah – Durban, 15th June 2018 – Tshegofatso Masibi

Greetings of peace to you beloved elders, leaders, activists; brothers and sisters in Islam! Assalaam Alaikum.   It is the Grace and Mercy of Allah this year, 2018; Eid-ul-fitr falls on the eve of the commemoration of the National Students Uprisings of 1976, which began in Soweto on June 16. You may ask yourself: What does Ramadaan got to do with the 1976 Students uprising?

The symbolic connection between Eid-ul-fitr and the Commemoration of the National Students uprising of 1976 is that they are both ruminations on, and celebrations of the ability of human beings to individually and collectively, metaphorically and literally exert themselves above the comfort zones of unquestioning conformity and acquiesce to established and entrenched social routines. They both point to the significance and power of self-mastery and selflessness as weapons of resistance to the dictates of the environment and tradition

The Ramadaan reawakening evoked by the spirit of Allah Consciousness takes the form of subduing normalized human resignation to the craving of the flesh and carnal desires.  The 1976 reawakening sparked by the wave of Black Consciousness took the form of subduing the fear, self-doubt and inferiority complex and declaring, with Biko and Cesaire:

“No race possesses the monopoly of beauty, intelligence and force…There is room for all humanity at the rendezvous of victory”

The selflessness spirit that moved the 70s activists, finds expression in the words of one of the heroic Black Consciousness student leaders of the time, who became the face and voice of the uprising, Tsietsi Mashinini: My People First.

The key question and challenge, which is also an opportunity, is: How to internalize, rekindle and live the resilient human spirit of Ramadaan   and June 16, 1976 every day of our life in all facets of life? How do we that ensure that our personal, social, political and economic conduct is characterised by the virtues of selflessness and human agency against forces that subdue and denigrate human dignity?

Perhaps the best start to answering that question is, how do we celebrate these days?  To do justice to this question it is important to reflect on how just after they have buried their beloved brothers and sisters and fellow comrades, while still trying to recover from the emotional trauma, while still nursing psychological and physical wounds, the children of 1976 marked this day and how they believe it should be remembered?  In this regard, it is worthwhile to listen to the voice of the students in the form of the pamphlet released by the Soweto Students Representative Council (SSRC) in 1976, calling for Black Christmas, which stated:

The year 1976 is the year of sorrow and blood and sweating for the freedom of Africans. We will then show this by cooperating in this fight by not having a wonderful thing for Christmas.

No clothes.

No furniture.

No liquor.

No toys.

The sentiments expressed in this pamphlet resonate with views expressed in a 1977 pamphlet of the SSRC which declared June 16, “Students day, which asserted:

We shall share sufferance and joyous moments.

Anniversary to mark boycott of Bantu Education

Procedure on before and after June 16:

June shall go down the annals of history as “The Students’ Day” It shall stand known to all Blacks throughout South Africa who identified themselves with the students struggle as a holiday, namely, Students Day. On this day prayer meeting shall be arranged and attended by both parents and students On this day we plead for a complete moment of silence from the early of the morning till 9am when vehicles taking people to prayer meeting centres and hospitals only shall be allowed to move.  At 10am three hours of prayer shall be held….

It is important to note that children of the 70s spelt out prayer meetings or what in the 80s were referred to as commemoration services as the method and platforms to be used to mark their day. It is also important to note that the students released pamphlets clearly spelling out what is expected to happen on June 16 and spelling out the time frames for the moments of silence and the duration of the prayer meetings.

This suggests that the student recognised the importance of notifying broader community about their actions and of getting buy-in and participation from the community through presenting rationale arguments rather than coercion and that they did not subscribe to the culture of infinite boycotts and protest action which had no clear and reasonable time-frame.

This is a far cry from a situation that emerged in the late 80s where you would wake up in the morning going to work and find yourself in the middle of a consumer boycott, bus boycott or strike action you were not informed of and could find yourself at best being made to drink bleach, or at worse being necklaced, for breaching a consumer boycott you did not know existed.

This is not to suggest that there were no excesses committed in the cause of struggle in the 70s but to highlight how the activists of that time generally understood the importance of maintaining dignity and integrity of the struggle, the integrity of the agents of the struggle and the dignity and integrity of the people in whose name the struggle is waged.  Allowing cars taking people to hospitals to move freely indicates the students’ respect for life even in the middle of hardships and struggles.

What we learn from this and is worth reclaiming is that when we struggle, we should strike hard at the system but should never lose our humanity and the centrality of respect for human life and human dignity in our struggle. The tradition of keeping the sobriety of the day continued in 1978, with the Soweto Action Committee and the Soweto Students League making the call:

All shops and business centres shall be closed on the 16 and opened on the 17th for half a day.

All shebeens should be closed on the 13th of June to 19th on Sunday.

The NPSL together with its multi-racial Football League should suspend games.

Disco and cinemas shall not operate too during this period 16th June to the 19th Sunday

It is very clear that the 70s generation of student and youth activists subscribed to the idea of using days of this nature not just as moments of mourning but as moments of reflection and consciousness-raising. Even the funerals and night vigils of the victims of police shootings became schools of social consciousness, political consciousness, and community organizing and mass mobilization. This is aptly captured in the recollections of one of the activists, who was only 19 years old when the uprisings burst out, who recalls:

The night vigils were very significant. You will remember that after June 16 until 1978, virtually every weekend there was a political funeral. And at that time we did not only attend political funerals, we also went to night vigils. Night vigils were a place where we met leaders of the Black Consciousness Movement who knew about these particular things. And they would come to give a perspective to us.

What we can learn from this and should be able to reclaim today is the creative, innovative and imaginative use of spaces to create a new language and a new culture of liberation, of human solidarity and resistance against the odds, based on a keen awareness of our own humanity and the humanity of others, refusing to be either silenced or to be parrots that unquestioningly mimic what the academia, the media, the government, the priest, the imam and the Moulana tell us.

This is about listening to the inner voice that tell us that we are more than what the environment , the society or our carnal desires tell us we are. It is about that spirit of Black Consciousness that refutes the lie that we are just bodies and fights the false idea that we are all interior and lack interiority.   In reclaiming the spirit of Black Consciousness that propelled the 70s activists forward and in keeping with the spirit of Ramadaan, we should fight for the right to call our souls our own rather than be content with souls constructed by pop culture or so-called mass culture, which is effectively a false consciousness imposed on the people by the media with its culture of consumerism, crass materialism, greed and individualism. Like the June 16 generation we should not be cajoled by the White Christmas of new deals and renewals that promises us a better life that depends of Foreign Direct Income, bail outs of big corporates in many disguises, tax cuts for the rich and vat increases for the poor.   In that spirit of Solidarity evoked by the students we should be able to loudly and actively demonstrate our solidarity with Palestine and all the oppressed and poors of the world.  With these words, may every day be Ramadaan, a moment of reflection, self-realization, selflessness and self-mastery. May every day be June 16, 1976, a moment of reawakening, self-realization, selflessness and self-mastery!

May our motto be My people first!  Our people First!

‘Id al-Fitr Khutbah at TIP Family Eid Gah – Durban, 15th June 2018 – Tshegofatso Masibi

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *