At the time of the Soweto uprising of 1976, I was a second-year student at the University of Durban-Westville (now part of the University of KwaZulu-Natal) studying medicine. But my anger at what my fellow students had suffered in Soweto took up all my attention.
Our rage seemed to be pumping through our blood at the same time, almost as if we were all tethered to one heart. We might have been young and still at school, but the protests were driven by us, the students, and we felt we had the support of the country’s entire black population, as well as that of the planet. Anyone with a conscience or sense of justice had to agree with our fight for quality education, after all. Surely this would be enough to drive our movement towards victory?
It turns out organising is a little more complicated than that.
In retrospect, the Soweto uprising was a classic revolutionary movement. While the tension had been building for years, even centuries, the student protest was sparked by a single issue: a rejection of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction.
The anger that sent thousands of students into the streets was a focused one, and the tragedies that unfolded were very real, helping to put a human face on the struggles of a large group of people and bring it into the larger context of anti-apartheid resistance. It is clear that this rage still smoulders among the country’s students today. Former Afrikaans universities have a long way to go to eradicate the vestiges of an educational system that used race to deny black students the right to be taught in languages they understand.
The fact that race remains an obstacle in the growth of black education in South Africa is a testament to some of the failures of the past and the battles that were lost by the previous generation of student protesters. When we turned around and looked back on our struggle, we realised with stark clarity that there was no real organisation backing us up.
We might have believed ourselves victorious by revolting against the system, but we had not brought it down. We came to realise that struggle and transition are always more complex than initially assumed.
There was something missing. Our struggles were not effective, our voices were not being heard. It seemed we had not been asking ourselves the right questions.
It was only when Steve Biko died the following year, in 1977, that I realised the obvious. Throughout our struggle we had been directing our rage outwards, towards the regime. What we should have been doing simultaneously was harnessing it inwards, by encouraging the people who shared our values to join us in our fight.
There was no organised presence of academics, teachers, women, the rural community, workers or parents who were part of our movement. They understood our anger. It was their children who were being deprived of a worthwhile education and getting killed for demanding one. But what could they do? They had no impetus to help us stand up against the system, and we never provided them with any. They stood beside us as individuals, but individual bravery alone cannot defeat a ruthless armed enemy.
This is why we as students should have transformed the Afrikaans issue into something bigger, into a mobilising charter of demands linked to other, broader struggles.
We needed to organise, not only against the regime, but also around our exclusion and oppression. Because if a spark is to create an explosion that changes the world, the fuse must be an issue that resonates with the majority.
It was enormously painful for me to come to terms with this fact. In the terrible, tragic days following the uprising and Biko’s death, I learnt that building a powerful, lasting movement entailed structuring it around issues that a plurality of people found important. Our collective rage as students was completely justified, but it was narrow. Unless a student uprising convinced the wider population of their shared grievances, it would always fail. We had to build a more welcoming, all-encompassing and inclusive tent, and invite a bigger congregation to join us.
I remember experiencing that same feeling while visiting Cairo, Egypt, months after the momentous Tahrir Square uprising in early 2011. Whenever I visited the city’s cafés, university lecture halls or newly taken-over government buildings, I could sense the excitement of the citizens — students, intellectuals, women, workers — as they contemplated what lay ahead for their country. It was tangible, the kind of euphoria I had experienced in my own youth.
But I also felt trepidation at the knowledge that this event, while groundbreaking, was just another cog in the ever-revolving wheel of revolutionary history. A history I know well. I tried my best to brush my concerns away, but they lingered throughout my journey.
As a member of the advisory committee for the World Bank’s development report on conflict, security and development in 2011, I spent hours with Egypt’s union leaders, who wanted to free themselves from the previous “conveyor belt” approach to unionism that had corrupted the union movement.
They argued earnestly for an independent model that would never again be controlled by the state’s security apparatus and political elites. But when I suggested a model that involved strong national industrial unions in a tight federation, similar to South Africa’s Cosatu, they baulked. In their view, a localised organisation of their unions, located on a factory-by-factory basis, was preferable because it would impede the state’s ability to manipulate and undermine union leadership, as it had done pre-revolution.
I feel frustrated that my work in the region studying aspects of failed statehood prevented me from doing more. I could have offered a steady hand; I could have stood in solidarity with the unionists and youth when they needed people like me most.
There was no one to share with them a progressive model of an independent union and collective bargaining. Today we know that their revolution failed because there was no consolidation of people’s power, no constant working and reworking of democratic practices by the activists.
The uprisings that occurred in North Africa and the Middle East in 2011 can be viewed as youth-led rebellions, not only against entrenched privilege but also against a social and political system that excludes the majority of its citizens from much-needed and rightful opportunities.
The years following the protests have been full of disappointments. Repression and torture have been restored to state rule. And yet for the young people in these regions who had a brief taste of liberation and human dignity, there can be no return to a faith in the old certainties and dogmas that stifled social and political progress for decades.
Meanwhile, the bright and talented youth on our continent are emigrating to the developed world or trapped in tribal fiefdoms ruled by warlords. Some of the poorest risk their lives in their thousands to cross the Mediterranean in leaking boats, a large portion never reaching their destinations.
But there is still hope. The transformative wave fuelled by the frustration of our youth remains charged with energy and potential. They must now show enough initiative and discipline to pursue their goals if we are not to end up with another failed revolution.
When the end of apartheid arrived, it was not because of the accomplishments of student activists, who failed to utilise fully the explosive atmosphere of the Soweto uprising. Organising a massive movement centred on a common goal proved to be more complex than we ever realised.
So we were not part of that vanguard movement that brought overall change to South African politics. At best, we were a catalyst in creating the conditions that allowed the vanguard movement in organisations such as the ANC to thrive. I came to learn this the hard way.
Ultimately it was Nelson Mandela’s generation that provided us with the political project of our time, the goal of a constitutional democracy at the heart of which sits a commitment to social justice and the restoration of human dignity. That is what his movement promised the people, and that is what he delivered.
Despite all efforts, much of that proud legacy has been tainted by the current leadership in South Africa. Their rule of the country is underscored by a fatal ahistorical conceit that presumes past errors cannot be repeated and that the struggle for freedom cannot be unwon. This has been the most destructive oversight of the previous generation of activists: their belief that the fight for justice and equality was over in 1994. It had only just begun.
This is why I am making it my duty to share some of the lessons I have learnt from past mistakes with the current generation of leaders. Perhaps by doing this I will add my own small contribution to the kind of future I hope they will build, one that I and my compatriots could not.