Remembering Soweto’s class of ’76

14 June 2012

A memorial and a youth centre with a difference are being built near the school in Soweto where students set off on the morning of 16 June 1976, a day that changed the course of South Africa’s history, to protest against apartheid and its “Bantu education” system.

Youth Day, a public holiday celebrated in South Africa every year on 16 June, pays tribute to the hundreds of students who lost their lives during the 1976 uprisings sparked off by the students’ march and the violent reaction of the apartheid security forces.

Mphuti Street in Jabavu, Soweto holds a strong significance to the events of 16 June 1976. On this street is Morris Isaacson High School, where the students’ protest is said to have gained momentum after starting at Naledi High School in the southwestern end of the township.

June 16 Heritage Trail

It is at Morris Isaacson that the June 16 Heritage Trail, which follows the route that protesting Soweto school students took, begins.

Directly opposite the school, a new June 16 Memorial and a Youth Institute are being built. Bheki Nkosi, Gauteng province’s MEC for infrastructure development, took the media on a tour of the construction site last week.

Work on the R28-million project, funded by the department, began in October 2010 and is expected to be completed and handed over to the City of Joburg in July. The City is a development partner in the project.

Speaking on site, Nkosi said: “The Youth Institute is [part of] the June 16 Trail Project aimed at identifying and recognising the contributions made by the young people of Soweto and South Africa in general towards the struggle against oppression and subjugation.

“Once completed, it will become a centre for memory and a resource for young people to contribute their role in the community through various youth developmental programmes that will be run from the institute.”

It will be a place of learning and skills development. It contains a computer room with space for 10 computers. There is also a multimedia room that will contain another set of computers, television screens and print material, including educational books. A server room will connect all computer systems.

Technology

The institute is technologically advanced. It also has a room for a back-up generator that will service the whole building in case of power outages. It will kick in automatically the moment the electricity cuts off, and will have a large enough fuel tank to last for 24 hours before being filled again.

On the ground floor, there is an open space that will be used as an art gallery. “We are saying to young people, ‘This is your chance to showcase your potential in this institute.’ We have to make sure that the battles of June 16 are won in his building,” Nkosi said.

A medium-sized multipurpose room will be able to accommodate just over 100 people, to be used for various purposes.

Obed Madzhini, the project manager, said the basement would consist of a large space that would provide an alternative venue for meetings and conferences. It would also have storage space. Ablution facilities, including for disabled people, will also be located in the basement.

Parking will also be in the basement, which will have ramps to the ground floor for easy access for disabled people. The ground floor is paved with concrete slabs, strips of black granite and brick.

Architecture

From the outside, the two-storey building has a unique design: Mmakwena Selepe, the chief director of capital works, said that once it was complete, it would have the shape of an AK 47 rifle. “The AK 47 is a symbol of the struggle. It is relevant to the events of June 16.”

Outside the centre, a steel foundation for a pictorial memorial wall has already been built. Once it is finished, pictures of June 16 heroes will be engraved on the wall, along with the history of the student uprisings. “It will tell the whole story of June 16 and its heroes.”

Madzhini said the foundation had been designed to be very strong, to ensure that it lasted for years, “if not for ever”.

Next to the memorial, near the entrance on the west, a second statue of Tsietsi Mashinini will be erected. Mashinini was one of the student leaders of the march. He died in exile in the 1990s.

There is already a statue of him at the school, unveiled in June 2010. It was the second monument erected in Soweto specifically to commemorate the contribution of the class of 1976 to the liberation struggle. The other was the June 16 Memorial Acre and Artwork that was unveiled in 2006.

It is part of the Hector Pieterson Memorial and the other plaques that have been unveiled along the route followed by the youth.

To be displayed at the entrance to the institute will be a section of glazed steel bearing the words: Struggle, Liberty, Freedom, June 16, Memorial Acre, Youth and Rise.

The building is 80 percent complete; 93 locals have been trained during its construction through the government’s Expanded Public Works Programme, a national plan aimed at drawing a significant number of unemployed South Africans into the productive workforce by providing them with skills training.

Source: City of Johannesburg