Lecture by Dr. Khulu Mbatha at the Launch of “Scattered: A Personal Story of the 1976 Generation” at the University of Zululand, KwaDlangezwa Campus, on Wednesday, 5 October 2022
The Vice-Chancellor, Prof Xoliswa Mtose,
The Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Institutional Support, Prof Sipho Seepe,
The Executive Management of the University of Zululand,
The Dean of Students, Dr Teboho Ncokazi,
Ladies and gentlemen,
To all the students in attendance Good Day
Let me start by telling you how overjoyed I am to be with you today. It’s been my wish to go back to my origins where it all started and pay homage to the people and institutions that contributed to my education, knowledge and the person that I am today. Thanks for the invitation to come and launch “Scattered: A Personal Story of the 1976 Generation”,which is my second book, dedicated to the generation that got engulfed in the events that started in Soweto and spread throughout South Africa. What better time to choose than now? I am extremely humbled by this opportunity and will cherish this occasion for a very long time.
I wrote my Matric exams at the end of 1974 instead of 1973. I will not bother you with details of why it happened that way, you will read them in my book. My parents could not send me to university, I had to find a job in 1975. At the end of that year, the white employers of my parents, the Shimmin family, volunteered to pay for my studies on the condition that I pay them back once I finish my studies and start working.
Exactly 46 years ago, I imagine some of you were not yet born, I joined this university as a young man of twenty-two, seeking education and knowledge so I could become a better human being and contribute towards the improvement of the well-being of my people. I did not know at the time that this was going to be my shortest stay in an institution of learning
The news of the June 16 killings reached the university through radio broadcasts on the morning of Thursday, June 17th. In the evening we gathered in the main hall and tried to assess what had happened in Soweto and what our response was going to be. In those days, there was no TV news, and we did not have access to newspapers. The meeting lasted until the early hours of Friday, 18 June, with no clear direction or resolution.
Some wanted boycott action immediately and for us to join with the students of Soweto, while others called for radical steps like the closure of the institution. All this indecision was put aside with the arrival of a respected and very charismatic SRC (Students’ Representative Council) leader on campus that night. His name was Mental ‘Panel-Beater’ Mkhonza. Mkhonza did not disappoint. He electrified the meeting that had been dilly-dallying on action to be taken. The meeting had, among many proposals, concluded that the administration would be confronted straight on.
With the arrival of newspapers that Friday morning carrying the first pictures of the students that had been mowed down in Soweto, havoc followed. Hector Pieterson’s body was the most heart-breaking image to see. Within minutes there was chaos here and police helicopters started hovering above the university campus. My homeboys and I decided it was time to go and pack our suitcases and leave.
As we approached the main entrance police were arresting students. From amongst us, they picked up Gilbert Mazibuko (one of my homeboys) and arrested him. We left Empangeni by train in the evening and arrived in Durban on the morning of June 19. We departed the same evening for Johannesburg. We never saw Gilbert again.
Although my stay here was from February to June – five months only, still, the philosophy classes I attended, had such a long-lasting influence on me that, in exile, when I was given an opportunity to further my studies, I chose philosophy and nothing else. On the basis of the philosophy of Kant and Hegel that Professor Van der Merwe of the University of Zululand instilled in me, in 1978 I began my studies of philosophy in Germany. In 1983, after five years, Friedrich-Schiller University conferred a master’s degree cum laude, and in 1987 Ph.D. magna cum laude in philosophy on me.
Having come from South Africa with its racial divisions, such a pluralistic, multinational and multicultural social environment – students from Eastern and Western Europe, from Africa and Asia, from North and Southern America, combined with my studies of philosophy – was ideal to understand the world and cultivate a new world outlook.
I had left South Africa following the 1976 uprisings and its after-effects. Since coming back home and South Africa becoming a democratic state after 1994, through all the anniversaries related to this historical event of 1976, we listen to the familiar interpretation that ‘June 16’ was about the introduction of Afrikaans in black schools. Unfortunately, this narrative is limited to the immediate causes, such as grievances related to the Afrikaans language, Bantu education and the brutal reaction of the police. It does not take into consideration the underlying factors.
In this regard, the ‘June 16’ uprising, may be compared to the Sharpeville massacre of 1960, and the difference was that in 1976 bullets were aimed at school children. One can go back as far as the Bulhoek massacre of 1921.
This does not undermine the recognition of the youth and the organisations that were at the forefront of the uprising primarily sparked by the language question, or the role of those who led and participated in the mobilisation and execution of marches and demonstrations. Without such leaders, these actions would not have happened. However, to see these events from this perspective only, is short-sighted since there were other structures opposed to the government’s policy regarding Afrikaans in black schools including parents, teachers and community leaders.
Firstly, my book aims to address most of the components involved and what was at stake, therefore answering the question about what lies behind the events of 1976. The struggle against colonialism, oppression and the denial of human rights was only separated by epochs, the changing of politics and governments and the terrain of struggle. It is important to see the events of 1976 as a culmination of previous actions and setbacks that black people experienced in the fight against white minority rule, from the wars of resistance to the struggle led by the ANC for many years and later by the PAC, which was formed in 1959. In fact, ANC and PAC members were arrested and tried just before and after June in 1976.
I am often asked by my children, nieces and nephews, and the youth in general, what made us, the youth of 1976, leave the country, whether we informed our parents, and what we expected to find in the countries we fled to. These and many other questions are inevitable, and I explore these in my book.
Secondly, my book is also about the conditions surrounding my birth, the social milieu I grew up in, the culture that formed me. The implementation of forced removals and the creation of black townships around white cities and towns which was intrinsic to the implementation of apartheid rule was part of this.
To appropriately contextualise the ‘June 16’ uprising in its multifaceted form, it felt important to tell my life story. Skipping the country, jumping fences or crossing rivers and borders and going into exile would not have been the first choice for my peers and me. The truth is that while the marches and demonstrations were planned, the outcome and the direction that the uprising took, to a great extent, were spontaneous.
As the impact of the 1976 uprising reverberated throughout Africa and the world, the revolutionary atmosphere that energised the youth rebellion was changing the course of history for South Africa.
For most black families life was never going to be the same again. Friends were separated from friends and families were torn apart. At a very tender age, girls and boys transitioned into adulthood, in detention and prisons, and in the world of exile.
The journey started for some and ended for others, some were strong, and others were not; some survived and others did not. Many families, weekend after weekend, buried their children.
Going into exile or staying put were both precarious. Visiting families whose children had skipped the country, was a dangerous thing to do. For future generations to appreciate the myriads of obstacles we faced and the tough decisions that had to be taken, the events of 1976 must be deconstructed. This is what I do in this book.
Thirdly, I believe that the detailed account of my experience of going into exile in 1976, and how my life played itself out as a result, also offers insight into the experiences of others of my generation who followed in the footsteps of the banned ANC and PAC. Scattered across the continent and the world, our survival largely hinged on where we ended up, in the ANC or PAC. In many countries, this alone determined the survival of this generation and their continuation in the struggle to liberate South Africa. Many suffered irreparable physical emotional and psychological damage.
Fourthly, how prepared were the ANC and PAC to welcome the youth of 1976 into their fold? Those running away from the apartheid bullets in the streets of Soweto, Gugulethu, Mamelodi and Mitchell’s Plain. How much influence did the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM) have in exile? These critical questions, which shaped the thinking of the 1976 youth, are explored as my narrative unfolds.
The liberation movements were not immune from the divisions that our people experienced under apartheid, both racial and tribal, as these organisations were also a microcosm of South African society. How were these divisions dealt with in exile? Some of the political differences in both the ANC and PAC came to the fore in the tenuous conditions of life in exile. To maintain unity within these organisations proved to be one of the biggest tests and undertakings the leaders of the ANC and PAC faced.
Lastly, my experience in a then-divided Germany was decisive. Germany was the quintessence of the Cold War and the division of the world into East and West. Like some of my compatriots, I spent many years of my life in this environment, studying and at the same time being active in politics and world affairs. This is the background that shaped my understanding of the world. Moreover, I dealt with living without parents, siblings and friends, sometimes facing very harsh winters of Europe as a stateless refugee wishing I had never left my own country, and often dreaming about the unknown. Usually, dreams reflect what you have seen before and have experienced. In exile, you dreamt about what you imagined.
Even before I left the country, my ideals and those of my close friends had been strongly influenced by the vision of the ANC. Yet this book is neither a history of the ANC, PAC or any other organisation, nor an assessment of their principles, what they stood for, or what they accomplished or not. Rather, it is a personal story about my generation – the youth of 1976. Some of the stories woven into my narrative are horrific and painful and told for the first time in this book. Even today, they arouse anger and outrage, but they need to be told.
The circumstances I found myself in, dictated that I never lost the fact that the struggle was about liberating South Africa. The ANC, PAC, or the Black Consciousness Movement organisations were political and organisational vehicles through which South Africans hoped to free themselves from national oppression and social exploitation. The friends and comrades who influenced me as a young man and in my adulthood are found in all these organisations. Besides the bonds I had with comrades I worked and lived with, I also found new friends, uncles, and mother- and father figures who became part of my life and shaped the values that became my own.
Allow me to express my appreciation and thank you, especially the Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Institutional Support, Professor Sipho Seepe, the Dean of Students, Dr Teboho Ncokazi and the entire leadership of the University of Zululand for bringing me back here.
This morning I could not stop myself from visiting the students’ hostel known as Blue Waters, where I stayed in 1976. I noticed that the building has been replaced. I also stood in front of the main hall where we made a decision to leave the university and join the students of Soweto. It was in that main hall on that fateful day of 18 June 1976 that my journey with this university ended. And while my journey ended abruptly, the learnings and the experiences of my very short stay in this institution remained with me for a very long time. It is for that reason that standing in front of you today is an opportunity that I will honour for as long as I live.
Some of you might be wondering what happened to the Shimmin family that paid for my studies to come here and study. A few weeks ago, my sister and I paid a visit to Mrs. Shimmin, who is 87 years old now, to give her a copy of my book. She reprimanded me for referring to her as an Afrikaner woman in my book because she regards herself as South African. The reason I am telling you this is because we have never discussed the subject of paying back the money for my short stay here.
During the delivery of my remarks, I mentioned a few people who passed through this university but never completed their studies and were with me in exile playing a significant role in liberating this country. Some have already passed away, like Mental ‘Panel Beater’ Mkhonza, Jabulani Nobleman Nxumalo, popularly known as ‘Mzala’, Manala Manzini – the former director-general in the National Intelligence Agency, Ambassador George Nene, General Themba Ntsibande, and others. As I mentioned earlier, Gilbert Mazibuko got arrested when we left these premises, and when we went into exile he was still in detention. We learned from there that he had died.
But others are still around, people like the Retired General Siphiwe Nyanda, Ambassador Welile Nhlapo, former minister Penuel Maduna, Tseko Nell, who led numerous insurgency missions into the country, and many others. I mention these because, like me, they came from Soweto, but there are others that came from Kwa-Mashu and other townships.
All of them speak fondly of their memories at this university. It might be a worthy idea to invite them one day so they can share their experiences with you. This university did produce noble men and women, not only in academia but soldiers who were in the trenches of the liberation struggle. Is this not part of this university’s history?
Compared to the 1976 generation, the youth today face quite different and complex challenges that demand different tools and approaches. What lessons have been learned from previous generations? For example, early this year the Department of Military Veterans (DMV) supported the publication of six books written by veterans. I was grateful to Ambassador Mabuse Mampane (popularly known by his MK nom de guerre Reddy Mazimba) when he asked me to put his manuscript together, which was one of the books published and titled “MY JOURNEY FROM A RURAL HERD BOY TO MK SOLDIER AND THEN AMBASSADOR’.
I have learned a lot from those who left the country in the early 1960s thinking that they were going to train for six months and come back home to fight. To tell you the truth, we too, the 1976 generation, assumed that after a few months out of the country, we were going to return and free South Africa. In this regard, I hope my book will help you understand how naïve we were and what we learned out of it.
Today you can exercise your vote to change your circumstances. This was not possible during our time. Are we taking full advantage of this right for which, as you know, many laid down their lives? Revolutionary theory is only beneficial if it can bring about social change, in other words, revolutionary theory devoid of practice, is inadequate. The inequalities in our society can never be addressed if we do not have the tools to understand why they exist and how we must tackle them. That’s for me the importance of education. The enemy of the people then was white domination, today political power is in the hands of Blacks. What does it mean, in terms of our own education and life strategies?
I believe the personal life stories I put together in my book provide a lens through which to understand the particular, historical period of the struggle against oppression. These records would be invaluable sources of knowledge, insight, and inspiration for the current and future generations.
Why is today’s youth not part of the national education structures when the uprising of 1976 came about because of protests against Bantu education? Is it wise that when there are issues to be addressed as it happens with NSFAS funding, we start burning tyres? If 1976 was a catalyst for change; if the youth contributed so much to bring about freedom and democracy in this country, why is there no youth ministry in this country? I am not talking about the ministry of women, youth and people with disabilities. The question is not directed at the youth only, but to all of us, including this university.
Let me end by posing this challenge to you, to the university and to all our institutions of learning: the constitution that our country adopted following the establishment of democracy in 1994 is not in favour of a one-party state. Considering our past, it was not going to be in favour of such a state. Given our experiences of the past 28 years, does our electoral system, which we adopted then, favour the strengthening of democracy or not? I don’t think so. The country is in trouble, our future is in trouble, the achievements of yesteryear are being eroded, and the leadership of this country is being recycled as if we have no youth to talk about.
Nowadays it has become fashionable to say that our future lies with coalition governments. Coalition for what? What is the agenda for these coalitions? Where are they prepared? All our parties are just taking the people, their suffering and misery, for granted. In 1994, for example, the ANC had the implementation of the Freedom Charter on its agenda. At least that was our belief.
What informs a coalition partnership today? I lived in Germany for many years, and all governments since after WW2 have been coalition governments. Can we learn from them what informs a coalition government? With what we have gone through in this country in the recent past, I am convinced that our future demands more than coalition governments. It demands mature institutions, capable and skilled individuals, and people who respect the fact that our freedom was not brought about by corruption and favours, and that many sacrificed their lives.
I thank you.