Language and protest
Brothers and Sisters, I appeal to you – keep calm and cool. We have just received a report that the police are coming. Don’t taunt them, don’t do anything to them. Be cool and calm. We are not fighting.”
Student leader in the Soweto student uprising of 16 June 1976 (Teboho “Tsietsi” Mashinini)
Forty years ago today, a total of between 3,000 and 10,000 children in uniform grouped together in Vilakazi Street, Soweto (made famous also as being the street on which two Nobel peace prize winners once lived – Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu). They were planning a mass, peaceful demonstration against the compulsory use of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction for Grade 7 (what was then Standard 5) learners in 1976. Most of these children, if they spoke this language at all, spoke it only as a third or fourth language. Many of the teachers required to teach in Afrikaans did not speak it.
Language, like many things, can free you or restrict you, but it is obvious what the desired result was here.
I have been lucky in my life. I have never had language foisted upon me. I have encountered the languages I have learnt or tried to learn both freely and willingly. I celebrate language every day and consider myself privileged to learn new words in my travels, by reading, by encountering other people and by enjoying their cultures and differences.
So today, I will not write a long political post, but rather honour the deaths and sacrifices of the many Soweto school children and others who protested for their right to learn and be taught in their own language. They aimed to do this without violence. But the bullets came from the police.
During the June 16th Soweto Uprising, and other protests that resulted directly from it, it is believed that as many as 200 people died. The official toll is only 23. The youngest person to die was four.
I think that says it all.