We have failed the class of ’76


14 June 2020

Professor Omphemetse S. Sibanda

That Afrikaans is still mandatory must be revisited as we give the curriculum a much-needed trim

The 1976 Soweto student uprising is one of South Africa’s unfinished struggles – at least from the education sector perspective.

As a reminder, the day began with a march by thousands of pupils carrying banners and shouting slogans “Down with Afrikaans” and “Viva Azania” – the name given to South Africa by black nationalists.

On the other hand, then prime minister John Vorster vowed that his “government will not be intimidated”. Indeed, the apartheid government responded with unmatched brutality.

On Tuesday, June 16 2020, South Africans will commemorate the 44th anniversary of what many would agree was a pivotal moment in the anti-apartheid struggle when in 1976 black pupils in Soweto and other black townships stood up for their rights to be recognised as deserving of quality education, and to be freed from the coercion to learn lessons in Afrikaans when white pupils could choose their language of instruction. What the pupils fought against in 1976 is still a problem today.

June 16, now renamed Youth Day, has been lost in transition to the very same democratic government thousands of pupils died for. The only thing that stands out as a true epitome of the historic struggle is the famous picture taken by Sam Nzima of Mbuyisa Makhubu
carrying the limp body of Hector Pieterson.

So powerful was and is the picture of Pieterson that apartheid functionaries had to remove it from an exhibition of press photos on display in Port Elizabeth in January 1978.

Close to where Pieterson was shot in Orlando West is the memorial with the inscription: “In memory of Hector Pieterson and all the other young heroes and heroines of our struggle who laid down their lives for freedom, peace and democracy.”

Ironically, we claim to remember the June 16 victims under the recalibrated “Youth Day”, when actually the day is remembered to be forgotten. There seems to be some level of apathy and ignorance regarding maintaining the trajectory of the issues raised by the Class of ‘76.

Perhaps we need to celebrate this June 16 differently amid COVID-19 restrictions. How about we revisit the issue of Afrikaans as a mandatory language for black pupils at schools; and the issue of curriculum trimming and revitalisation?

Many narratives indicate following the government “decision to leave the choice of the language of instruction up to each school. Afrikaans remains mandatory for students who want to go on to college”.

The truth is that Afrikaans was never really a choice for black pupils post the 1976 uprising; it remains mandatory as a second language for black pupils. In my view, forcing pupils to learn a language that is difficult not only to them but to their parents to understand is a taboo that must be chipped away.

The decommissioning of Afrikaans as a compulsory subject in schools from grade R is long overdue. This is one approach to curriculum transformation that our education authorities must grow the courage to deal with once and for all. No harm will happen to the school curriculum having only one language taken by pupils.

There is now a saying that “no crisis must go to waste” in
reference to the challenges COVID-19 pose to schools. But can the academic term be completed successfully given the overburdened curriculum.

The draft basic education recovery plan for post-COVID-19 lockdown of the department of basic education, which was widely circulated (leaked) in the media, intimated curriculum deconstruction that conceptually included curriculum trimming, curriculum reorganisation and accelerated learning programmes.

Collectively, these concepts speak to the rationalising of the content of the Curriculum Assessment Policy Statement. Curriculum trimming will be about unburdening the curriculum, deciding which topics to keep and what to give up to ensure that the load is manageable within the time available.

On the other hand, curriculum reorganisation will involve “reorganising and refocusing of the curriculum to make the content more manageable … through repackaging and integrating subjects or topics, embedding particular knowledge and skills foci and balancing depth and breadth as key strategies to reduce overload”.

Alongside decommissioning Afrikaans should be trimming the curriculum by reducing the number of different topics taught in subjects like history, life orientation, science, mathematics, and technology. Less is more. A report from Project 2061 of the American Association for the Advancement of Science recommends “that schools create more time for in-depth study”.

History is one of the subjects that need trimming and reorganisation. A number of archaic topics are presented in our history curriculum. For instance, the Great Depression unit of the grade 9 history textbook is perhaps worth keeping given the global ramifications of the phenomenon. There may be some merit in discussing the failure of democracy in the Weimer Republic of Germany (1919-1933), which was supposed to be a
democratic state.

But I’m not sure how understanding the Nazi Party’s electoral performance during the 1932 and the 1933 elections will enhance the knowledge and cognitive development of the post-apartheid South African pupil. Likewise, I see no relevance in how Adolf Hitler
consolidated power.

For me, the moral of the struggle by the Class of 1976 is captured in the 1973 song, Get Up Stand Up, by Bob Marley and The Wailers. The song got
inspiration from the suffering and poverty he saw in Haiti.

The June 16 celebration and speeches are characterised by “poverty” of accountability regarding what happened to the education issues advocated by the students who were beaten, kidnapped and killed by the apartheid government. As Marley said: “You can fool some people sometimes / But you can’t fool all the people all the time.”

  • Omphemetse S. Sibanda is a research professor in the faculty of management and law at the University of Limpopo.



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