Soweto ’76: re-building a revolutionary movement of students and youth

The militant and determined struggle of the youth in Kenya that forced President Ruto to withdraw the controversial Finance Bill 2024 demonstrates once more the revolutionary potential of the youth in igniting struggles that can develop into revolutionary situations. The taxes the Bill threatened to impose against a range of goods and services including sanitary products and nappies was to pay for the country’s considerable debt to parasitic local and international financial institutions. The intransigence of Ruto and his government drew the wrath of the youth and women in particular who were not prepared to accept this latest attack on their declining standard of living. Like the struggles of the youth elsewhere, the most recent in Sri Lanka against austerity and the ongoing student occupations of university campuses in the US and Europe in solidarity with people of Palestine, the youth are increasingly coming to the fore in the tumultuous period of class struggle that has opened up against a capitalist system now in its of death agony worldwide. The youth, as Trotsky co-leader with Lenin of the Russian revolution said, is the light cavalry entering the battlefield ahead of the heavy battalions of the working class.

60% of Africa’s population is under the age of 25. As the crisis of capitalism deepens, they will be compelled to struggle against growing and more brutal austerity measures. Consequently, they will look to learn the lessons of struggles in the past especially those led by their counterparts like the youth in South Africa who 48 years ago this month, led the Soweto 1976 uprisings. Then, approximately 575 youth were martyred, as the Palestinians refer to those who lost their lives in the ongoing genocide perpetrated by the Israelis. With mere rocks and Molotov cocktails, the youth confronted Casspirs and other armoured
vehicles, teargas, rubber and live bullets of what was then, the most ruthless regime on the planet before Israel replaced it on the gallery of rogue states.

Just as the 1976 youth uprising followed in the wake of the Durban strikes, the #FeesMustFall movement gained momentum after the dramatic explosion of the mineworkers strikes for a living wage of R12500 in 2012 culminating in the Marikana massacre. The main achievement of both these movements was that they were able to unite students into a national movement around a set of key demands that was a vital
feature in their success albeit at the cost of many young lives in 1976. However, a key difference between the two movements is not only that Soweto ‘76 was based on school students and #FMF on university students, but the former was also able to later connect to the struggles led by organised labour in its ascendancy while the latter took place against the background of its relative organisational decline consequent upon the ideological and political degeneration of its leadership.

The MWP is initiating a campaign to re-unite the movement of the working class across the four theatres of struggle of women, youth and students, communities and workers as part of the broader campaign to build a mass workers party on socialist programme. This article is the introduction to a series that will focus on the four theatres of struggle: the first focuses on the state of schools and the demands that should form part of a platform to unite students and youth under the political umbrella of a workers party on a socialist programme as its point of reference. The second will focus on early childhood and higher education, the third on women, the fourth on youth and unemployment, the fifth on community and a final part on workers unity.

Lessons of the 1976 Youth Uprising

The uprising that began in Soweto and spread across the country against the poor quality of education in general was triggered by the imposition of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction, a language hijacked by the oppressors and turned into a weapon of the subjugation of the black majority. It represented a continuation of the resistance sparked by the 1973 Durban Strikes when workers in the predominantly textile industry where significant numbers of women were employed, struck against starvation wages. The youth of 1976 were also inspired by the liberation from colonialism of neighbouring Angola and Mozambique – boosted by the collapse of Portugal’s colonial outposts after the overthrow of the Caetano dictatorship in 1974.

The Youth Uprising set in motion a rising tide of resistance followed by school boycotts in the early 1980s and later, in unity with community and workplace struggles. The apartheid regime unleashed extreme levels of repression against the black working-class through assassinations, disappearances, torture, banning and detention without trial including of young children and especially in the townships of Gauteng and KZN, orchestrating and sponsoring through ‘black on black violence’ the worst kind of atrocities by arming the Inkatha Freedom Party. Far from quelling the resistance, the apartheid regime merely raised it to near insurrectionary levels.

As the youth were drafted into the workplace, their movement benefited from the greater organisational capacity and ideological influence of the labour movement with which their own fused. The country was effectively rendered ungovernable despite the declaration of successive States of Emergency (SoE). This was expressed first in the formation of the United Democratic Front (UDF) in 1983 that rendered impotent, the Tri-Cameral Parliamentary carrot of “reforms” – a renewed attempt at divide-and-rule. The launch of what was then the mighty Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) in 1985 in the middle of the first State of Emergency, showed that neither the carrot of reforms nor the stick of repression could stop the movement. Much more significantly, it placed the resistance under the political and ideological leadership of the organised working class.

Reforms from the above to stop revolution from below

The writing was on the wall for the end of apartheid. That it potentially could develop into a threat to capitalism itself, sparked the strategists of capitalism into action to save their system through negotiations with the banned ANC. Thus, in 1990, a few short years after Cosatu’s launch, political organisations and activists were unbanned, exiles returned, and the negotiated settlement began. It was a strategy of introducing ‘reforms from above to stop the revolution from below’. The talks about talks and formal negotiations, were punctuated by massacres, torture, assassinations and relentless repression throughout. This was in reality an attempt by the regime to tilt the balance of forces in the negotiations to achieve a settlement on terms favourable to it and its capitalist masters. It was an indirect acknowledgement that the formal dissolution of apartheid was unstoppable.

In the negotiated settlement that followed, the ANC used the right to vote the masses had won, to collude in the preservation of capitalism into which the aspirant black capitalist class the ANC represented aimed to be assimilated. With the era of social democratic reforms of the first 25 years of post-World War 2 period globally replaced by neo-liberalism, the ANC was set to preside over the now thirty-year period of counter-reforms. Amongst the masses’ expectations of the fulfilment of the ANC’s slogan of a “better life for all” symbolically, amongst the most significant betrayals was that of the youth’s dream of access to free, decent education.

The ANC government’s neo-liberal Growth Employment and Redistribution (Gear) policy imposed in 1996 resulted in the betrayal not only of the past but also of the future. It led to the denial of access to free decent quality education for the existing and future generations. The Freedom Charter’s promise to “open the doors of learning and culture” was betrayed also for the victims of the apartheid regime’s racist policies.

Failure to correct the legacy of Bantu Education

Even within the constraints of capitalism, the ANC’s counterparts in newly liberated countries on the continent and elsewhere embarked on mass literacy campaigns thereby mobilising the population ‘for each one to teach one’. However, under the diktats of Gear, that required a redistribution of wealth from the poor to the rich, that model was shirked by the new ANC led government. It thus forfeited an important opportunity to right one of the most significant wrongs of apartheid’s egregious policies. The Bantu Education system in particular had been intended to stunt the intellectual development of black people to preserve an uneducated cheap labour force as “hewers of wood and drawers of water”.

Instead of a mass adult literacy campaign and free education on a par with that of the white minority, a highly formalised programme of adult basic education and training and the controversial outcomes-based education were adopted. These were extensions in the educational sphere, of the World Bank and IMF’s neoliberal economic policies in the form of Human Capital Theory. The new education policies based on this theory replaced the widely anticipated mass literacy campaigns and their emancipatory goals of social transformation that most newly liberated countries pursued in Africa and beyond.

The capitalist dogma of market economics and “individual rational choice” human capital theory propagated, viewed education as an investment in individual skills that create a more employable workforce for the benefit of the capitalist class. Mandela had proclaimed that the government was not an “employment agency.” As in every sphere of social and economic policy, education under ANC rule was designed to serve the needs of the capitalist class.

The rationale was that “market friendly” policies like reduced corporate taxes, relaxed exchange control regulations and lower social spending would facilitate access to jobs in an economy that would allegedly grow. . The reason for unemployment according to this logic, is that there is a skills mismatch for which the education system is allegedly to blame for not offering the rights skills and the unemployed for selecting the wrong subject and career choices in an economy allegedly hungry for these.

Reproducing structural inequalities

It was always going to be impossible to completely eradicate educational inequalities inherited from the apartheid era within the framework of capitalism in the long run. But the neo-liberal Gear model of capitalism, made overcoming SA’s structural unemployment, inherited from the mutually reinforcing economic and socio-political framework of capitalism and apartheid that served it, impossible from the beginning of the democratic era.

Instead of expanding teacher training colleges, it embarked on neo-liberal “rationalisation” including closing teacher and nursing training colleges and transferring teacher training to universities whilst cutting their state subsidies.

The result was the cost of training was increased and teacher throughput reduced. To address the crisis of accessibility and affordability the ANC government introduced Further Education Training colleges promoting the falsehood of congenital intellectual incapacities for the working class majority. Universities were for an elite minority and the off-ramp to the second-class TVETs for those who don’t qualify for university entrance. Instead of expanding provision and improving the quality of education, the structural inequalities of apartheid and capitalism have been reproduced and reinforced. These policies were implemented in the context of the exposure of the SA economy to the ill winds of the world economy by Gear. These reached gale force levels in the 2008 global financial crisis sparking the Great recession – the worst since the 1930s Great Depression. SA lost a 1m jobs as a result and has not yet recovered from it.

As a result, even the minimal gains made in the first ten years of democracy have been reversed. The average growth of over 3% in the immediate post-Gear period has been portrayed by capitalist economists as a kind of “golden era.” But it set into motion the inequalities that have catapulted SA to the position of the most unequal society on the planet according to the World Bank. This growth rate was also below the 2011 National Development Plan’s target of 5.4% for ten years consecutively merely to eradicate extreme inequality by 2030.

Since then, economic growth has declined to less than 2% per annum. Economist project that this trend is set to continue until the end of this decade. Yet by their own calculations, what is needed is a minimum GDP growth rate of 5% per annum not to eliminate the existing unemployment of over 40%, but merely to absorb new job seekers into the economy. In response to the 2008 global financial crisis, the government has stepped up social spending cuts to eye-watering levels, in e.g. health, housing and education.

Nine wasted years of OBE

Although the worst of the post-apartheid educational “reforms” such as OBE have been moderated, the Bantu Education legacy remains compounded by 9 wasted years between 1997- 2006 of OBE. Widespread criticisms and warnings that OBE would fail in a context of poorly trained teachers, overcrowded classrooms and a lack of proper infrastructure and equipment, learning and teaching resources, fell on deaf ears. Consequently, not only the legacy of poor education but also exclusion under apartheid has been reinforced and is destined to continue as the high school drop-out rate shows.

Although the dismantling of apartheid has meant that black youth are now theoretically able to enter careers that were restricted under apartheid, this has been undermined by the government’s neo-liberal capitalist policies. The considerable increase in school enrolment is no more than what as a minimum should have been expected in a post-apartheid SA. The ANC is behaving like a fish asking to be praised for swimming. The school enrolment figures have risen not just because of the working class’ thirst for education remains unquenched. It is also because feeding schemes often provide the only decent meal for working class communities drowning in poverty. This is not an achievement”; it is an indictment.

The introduction of “fee free schools” similarly, are the substitution of apartheid based on race with discrimination based on class. Even the greater matric pass rates and throughput rates of black university students have been introduced to misrepresent ANC government’s failures as success. It has been achieved by the lowering of the matric pass requirements. But even for those that do enter university, awaiting them is the conversion of universities into institutions for the satisfaction of the needs of the capitalist system. Universities are pressured to improve graduate throughput and research publications output. These incentives to climb national and international university rankings to compete for research funding serve as a perverse incentive to maintain the broader neo-liberal regime central to which is social spending cuts expressed in dwindling government subsidies. Thus, like apartheid job reservation, universities are the reserves of the privileged – a system of class apartheid acting as entry barriers to the working class majority

Neo-colonial class apartheid

The NSFAS scheme, even without the corruption scandals in which it is embroiled, is not a “gain” and certainly not a substitute for free quality education. It reduces education from a right and a social investment for the collective benefit of society to a privilege. Even the qualification criteria promote class apartheid discriminating against hundreds of thousands of working class and even many middle class students.

A capitalist government in a country that remains predominantly economically neo-colonial thirty years after the end of official apartheid, does not and cannot regard education as a right for all. It is a “right” only the rich can afford’’ but as a favour for the working class. As servants of the rich, who can afford their privileges, the capitalist ANC government considers itself as under no obligation towards the working class. Working class destitution is regarded as the result of their inherently inferior intellectual capabilities and therefore their inevitable relegation to the bottom of the social pyramid. In the education sphere, capitalism is driven by the normalised inequality of “social Darwinism” – only the fittest, i.e. the richest, survive.

The crisis in education in SA, is in the final analysis rooted in the fact that the ANC government’s mandate in Codesa, was not only to preserve capitalism, but to fulfil its historical mission to create, in Mandela’s words, as long ago as 1956, a “prosperous non-European bourgeoisie.” The super-imposition of the programme for the fulfilment of this mission on the capitalist system previously managed by the apartheid regime, is the reason for the colossal waste in human potential in poor educational outcomes, skyrocketing unemployment, inequality and poverty.

Having arrived late on the scene of history, the creation of a rich black capitalist class inevitably requires the corruption inherent to capitalism testified to by the whole of colonial and apartheid history. The rivers of breathtaking levels of corruption flowing underneath the post-apartheid dispensation has its source in the capitalist system introduced by colonialism and continued under apartheid. This river has burst its banks and flows into every department including education. Education resembles a feeding frenzy of an elite whose corruption has infected even the trade unions.

The most unequal education system in the world

According to a 2020 report on the state of education, Amnesty International explains that South Africa has one of the most unequal education systems in the world with the widest gap between the top 20% of schools and the rest. More than 75% of children aged 9 cannot read for meaning. Based on government’s own statistics for its 23 471 public schools in 2018, it is in breach of its own minimum norms and standards for educational facilities enacted in 2013.

The World Bank estimates that with a GDP of $368 billion South Africa, as the most industrialised country on the continent and the second richest after Nigeria, is classified as upper middle-income. Yet it is the planet’ most unequal country, with more than half, 55% of its population living below the upper bound poverty level of $2.00 per day i.e. less than R40 per day. The combined wealth of South Africa’s 4 richest men; Johann Rupert, Nicky Oppenheimer, Koos Bekker and Patrice Motsepe equals that of the bottom 60% of the population.

Education is a microcosm of the crisis of capitalism in society. Social spending cuts have led to poor infrastructure and facilities in schools. Public schooling is in the intensive care unit:

  • Schools are overcrowded. increasingly exceeding the 1:35 learner teacher ratio set by the Department of Education
  • Thousands of teachers are either un- or underqualified especially in rural areas and in Maths and Science
  • Many schools lack basic teaching resources such as functional black or smart boards, photocopying machines in the absence of the latter and other basic learning and teaching resources
  • Frequent curriculum changes and since the change to CAPS (Curriculum Assessment Policy Statement), a heavy content load has limited preparation time to creatively and critically engage learners
  • Limited teaching time as most of the time is spent on classroom management, including administration in addition to dealing with problems arising from poverty, dysfunctional families and drug- addition and the associated psychological problems
  • Almost half the existing cohort of teachers of 454 749 will retire in five years yet universities only produce only 15 000 teachers per annum
  • 22% of school children must walk more than 3 km to get to school, many must walk much longer distances in treacherous conditions of inclement weather and rising levels of crime
  • Crime and violence at schools are a serious concern with students and teachers fearing for their safety and the loss of property undermining efforts to compensate for the lack of resources with computers due to frequent burglaries with some repeatedly targeted.

Education spending, at 6.6% of GDP, is lauded for comparing favourably to countries at similar levels of development. Yet this fails to take account not only of the legacy of apartheid but the incapacity of the capitalist system to provide for the basic needs of the working-class majority. Even in the advanced capitalist countries, all the gains of the past are under relentless assault with student debt in eg, the most powerful of them, the US at one tenth of the total $17 trillion consumer debt. However, just as the idea that the neo-colonial world can ever catch-up with the advanced capitalist countries economically on the basis of capitalism is utopian, so is the idea that they can reach their education levels.

Neoliberal policies lower the quality and raises the cost of education

Part of the reason that sections of the new Afrikaner capitalist class placed themselves at the forefront of demands for apartheid reforms in the 70s and 80s is that the apartheid education system starved the manufacturing sector of the skills need for the booming economy of the1960s which the white population was too small to provide. The ANC government’s capitalist economic policies have resulted in a similar problem. The refrain about the mismatch between skills and the needs of the economy is mainly propaganda to shield the capitalists for not only failing to invest in the economy but for the bloodbath of retrenchment unfolding. It is the very same neo-liberal policies the capitalists exert relentless pressure on the ANC government to implement, that undermine the quality and increases the cost of education that create this mismatch. The capitalists want to have their cake and eat it.

Under apartheid expenditure on black children was 10% of the education spend of a white child. Although race is no longer a feature of government education spending, class differentiation has ensured that those racial and class cleavages remain except for the growth of a small black middle class able to take advantage of greater educational opportunities and widening educational access.

The annual ritual of the matric pass rate where the top performers are paraded on public platforms and the media celebrates especially those who slip through the cracks of dysfunctional schools are used to falsely generalise their success as a matter of individual will and determination. They conveniently ignore the capitalist socio-economic and institutional factors which make education difficult for most poor and working-class students.

Build a movement of struggle to unite students and youth

Thus, while it is important that we continue to demand for our schools to be fixed, we cannot lose sight of the fact that these problems are rooted in the structural inequalities and the economic policies that reinforced them. Privatisation and outsourcing of basic services like cleaning, security and transport should be provided directly by the schools or the state. Schools should not be sites for feeding schemes let alone, like other outsourced services, be put out to tender for self-enrichment in the name development.

To honour the martyrs of June 1976, we demand the following as a minimum programme:

On Schools

  • The immediate employment of all unemployed teachers
  • The immediate doubling of the numbers of teachers trained annually by the universities over the next five years
  • The immediate importation of foreign maths and science teachers to address the shortage in these subjects
  • Establish a dedicated unit in the Department of Basic Education to develop and coordinate a comprehensive Continuous Teachers Professional Development programme
  • An incentive scheme to attract experienced teachers especially in science and maths to rural areas and poor township schools

On school management and governance

  • A comprehensive training and development programme for SGBs
  • Adoption of clear criteria and transparent procedures for the appointment of staff
  • The separation of managers and staff in membership of trade unions
  • Enforcement of education policy and labour laws compliance in independent schools

Through the ‘76 Uprising the youth made a major contribution to the ultimate defeat of apartheid, it is imperative that the current generation of youth draw the lessons of their struggle and those who came after them to build a movement of students and youth that can contribute to dismantling capitalism and replacing it with socialism.