Review: A People on the Boil: Reflections on June 16 1976 and Beyond

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Author: Harry Mashabela

June 16, 1976, is a date that a lot of us are familiar with, but beside the fact that it was the day that African youth took to the street to protest against a decision taken by the Apartheid government to have some of the subjects taught in Africans schools taught in Afrikaans, a day in which Hector Peterson became the first victim of the massacre of those young people by the Apartheid police, most of us know nothing about the events that led to that fateful day, or those that came after. “A People on the Boil: Reflections on June 16 1976 and Beyond” is a book written by Harry Mashabela chronicling the events leading to, during, and after that historic day. The book is an incredible account of those events and, in the foreword, Es’kia Mphahlele writes:

“Mashabela’s narrative indeed presents a microcosm of the larger cesspool that was South Africa’s white rule whenever Africans were concerned. It comes home forcefully to us that the government would use any excuse to gun down defenseless children – to set an example for Soweto of what massacre autocratic power could unleash. Small children braved the unknown, into exile. The rulers would pursue them, even beyond exile. Secret mass burials by the police became mere routine. The parent’s homes themselves were no longer safe places to which to return.”

The book is a 16 chapter description of the events leading to, during, and after the June 16 massacre of 1976. The author describes some of the important events that lead to that fateful day, and in it also includes description of the roles that leaders such as Onkgopotse Tiro, Harry Nengwenkulu, Tseitsi Mashinini et al – and organizations such as the Soweto Parents Association (SPA), the Black People’s Convention (BPC), the South African Student Organisation (Saso) and many others – played in the buildup towards that day. Mr Mashabela, through documented personal recollections and recollections of other people, managed to immortalize, through written word, the actions during the gruesome killing of innocent students – from the moment the first gun was fired to some events that took place at 3 am in the following morning – that have forever remained in the minds of South Africans and people all over the world as one of the most gruesome killings of African people by the Apartheid police.

He then continues this chronicle by describing the events that unfolded after the June 16 massacre, events such as the formation of the Black Parents Association (BPA) – which was created to ‘plan a mass burial for the victims and give financial relief to the bereaved families’; the planning of the mass burials; the banning of the mass burial by Jimmy Kruger – who was ‘the all-powerful Minister of Police at the time’; and the decision to, instead of having a mass burial (which would cause problems with the law), go ahead with at least one massive burial service to symbolise all the dead. It was agreed to use the burial of Hector Peterson’s funeral as the “symbolic” one, as he was believed to be the first victim of the massacre.

In what I can only describe as an effort to not take away the attention of the reader from the main subject of the book – which is the events leading to, during, and after the June 16 massacre – Mr Mashabela used chapter 6 of the book to describe the events leading to his detention, and the tortures he went through at the hands of the security police. He was detained on suspicion of his involvement in a conspiracy and the police, because of their informant Tony Holiday, believed they had good reason to believe that Mr Mashabela was involved in the illegal printing and distribution of ANC pamphlets (which was banned at the time). He goes on to describe the events of his four month detention and mentions all the young people he came into contact with while in the abyss. Many more marches and demonstrations were organised by the youth after June 16 and Mr Mashabela, using his journalistic prowess, details some of them. One such demonstration was the 4th of August 1976 demonstration that was held by the youth – when they tried to march from Soweto to Johannesburg; another one is the violent march in Johannesburg that took place on the 23rd of September the same year that was also organised by the youth.

A chapter to look out for is chapter 12, in which Mr Mashabela writes about Steve Biko, The Black Consciousness Movement – the many groups that came because of it – and the role they played in the development of the consciousness and mindset of the youth (and the Black community as a whole) in the 70’s. He discusses the loss of this charismatic and zealous leader and the banning of the BCM and how these events affected the spirit of all African people during the struggle for a better education for the African people. He also describes the rise of another prominent youth led organisation – Cosas, the role it played during the struggles of the 80’s, and how its members, and those who supported them, led the fight against the struggle for political independence and the liberation of the school curriculums. He also mentions other organisations that played an equally important role in the fight for the realisation of a more “democratic education” but didn’t get as much media attention the others. These include Project Matriculation (PROTEC), Khanya College, Funda Centre, and the Council for Black Education and Research.

The book takes you on a journey into the minds of both the parents and students as they fight against the ills that were imposed upon them by an oppressive government. The author chronicles the events of the 60’s, 70’s, 80’s and early 90’s and the role that young people played in the struggle for the liberation of Azania and her people.

This book is a chronicle of the fighting spirit of the African child, a testament to the maxim “united we stand and divided we fall,” and proof that the young people, if they put in the effort and work together towards a common goal, have the power to change the course of history. Even though events such as the #FeesMustFall, #TransformWits/UCT/Rhodes et al, and the #RhodesMustFall campaigns – which are led by young people throughout the country – shocked many, this book shows that our history as a country is filled with events and movement in which young people took control and changed the course of history with their charismatic leadership and a love and desire for a better life for all involved. It is a must read for every young person in the country, and a reminder to those who have continually labeled the class of 2015 and 2016 as militant that they are not the first to ask for what is rightfully theirs, and they are definitely not the last.

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