June 16 is 31 years old this week. As usual, this day evokes strong feelings for millions of people.
The day – and the earth-shaking happenings associated with it – continues to stand out in significance, even after all these years.
June 16 1976 was, firstly, a turning point for the government of the day.
For the regime, it came as a bolt from the blue. Beyond the knee jerk, South Africa's rulers had no idea how to respond. And when they used guns against kids, they again demonstrated their inability to relate properly to a nation of wondrously diverse people as well as to govern a complex country with justice. They exposed their woeful incapacity to see and understand beyond the needs, wants and fears of a tiny minority. Aside from actual brutality of oppression, this unfitness to govern was the essence of oppression – and it was starkly showcased again for the world to see.
Furthermore, the Nationalist Party woke up to find that, despite harsh controls imposed on society, history was starting to wave goodbye to the mass acquiescence that had prevailed since the banning of organisations. There was a kind of tearing or rupturing, a birthing of something new. The realisation dawned on government that the old ways of working (and of controlling and commanding black people) wasn't working anymore and would have to be replaced by new ways. Of course, while they responded to their own anxiety about their capacities to rule the majority, their response was to consider reforms to apartheid. But the urban black populace became more vocal in demanding fundamental political change.
The realisation dawned on people – and students themselves who were initially surprised at how their local protest escalated to have national and international ramifications – that they had launched a major new response and that the dominant culture of fear in communities had been broken. The kids had defined a new way of engaging with the apartheid government.
But June 16th was also a major turning point for the ANC and other liberation movements. Up to that point, the liberation position was strong, well grounded and well articulated (See Mandela's statement from the dock - I am prepared to die. Rivonia Trial, 20 April 1964), with a sound intellectual and moral basis. However, leading organisations such as the ANC were comprised mainly of the educated and the elite. Where there was grassroots support, it was not really the organisation’s motive force.
June 16th signalled a new dynamism – it triggered a process of rooting the struggle for freedom more deeply in poor communities countrywide. It illustrated the will and capacity of poor and oppressed people to organise themselves.
Of course, such capacity was linked to social changes: by June 16th, urbanisation had become a greater force. Through that process, capitalism and apartheid had grouped poor black people in ghettoes that were ideal for organisation. In this regard, June 16 became our "intifada", operating on a geographical base that was constantly monitored and designed for control, but which as easily became a platform for myriad small militant sorties and constantly shifting centres of action and protest.
This dynamism infused the liberation movements with a new energy. From then on, the freedom struggle was more community based than ever before; and guidance and direction from the leadership was matched with leadership, perspectives and input from below. In time, the student and community-based resurgence linked with workplace organisation. Such organisation had begun on the basis of different disciplines - but solidified when we witnessed the 1973 strikes that sparked a major growth spurt in independent trade unions. It also tapped into the very potent contribution of the Black Consciousness Movement (which operated mainly at higher education institutions and which combined a strident voice, charismatic leadership, innovative intellectual work and projects in poor communities).
The June 16th protests added a new impetus and urgency to the work of the liberation movements. It made these movements much more robust, resilient and rooted; it increased the range of options for actions and resistance on the ground in South Africa. Clearly, the June 16th events (which began as protest but ended as resistance) contributed in fundamental ways to the democracy that we have today, and to the capacity of communities to hold leaders and parties in the new South Africa accountable.
June 16 1976 let a thousand flowers bloom.
In summary, the event and its immediate outcomes denote a watershed in that it:
· Consolidated and extended, to a significant degree, the grassroots foundations of the freedom struggle.
· Infused energy, perspectives, and leadership from the grassroots into the ANC and PAC, and in so doing added immensely to the resilience and strength of these bodies.
· Once and for all, broke the “spell” of fear that had been entrenched through the joint effects of repression and brutality on the one hand, and propaganda, ideological control and suppression of free speech on the other.
· As far as community-level activism went, moved beyond community organisation (as in self-help projects) to community mobilisation for political change.
· Gave concrete effect to the notion of mass struggle, a term often invoked by liberation movements but not yet generally or widely realised in practice.
· Demonstrated the efficacy of combining “leader-led” national protest action and people-led action undertaken at local level and co-ordinated through the efforts of hundreds (and later many thousands) of activists.
· Constitutes a key contribution to the building of democracy.