Peter Buckton, a senior sports administrator in Student Sports and Recreation – who was working at UCT in 1976 – reflects on how the campus and its surrounding communities have changed in 39 years.
HS: Where were you in 1976 and what was happening at UCT and in communities you knew?
PB: In 1976 I was 23 years old, working at UCT, married, living in Manenberg and had an 18-month-old daughter. In 1976 UCT was a hotbed of student protests and in June 1976 after the Soweto Uprising, the students came out in droves to protest against the state's oppression and brutality. Daily sit-ins were held on the Jammie Steps, which prompted regular visits by the police. Students were hit with batons, sprayed with tear gas, and pulled by the hair. This was the 1970s and many men had long hair. It was not only students who protested, but staff too. There was a groundswell of solidarity at UCT against state oppression and the brutal way it dealt with the protests. Another reason the state came down on the UCT protesters was that they saw them as sympathising with the "kaffirs" or the "swart gevaar", and almost all the protesters were white.
June 1976 and after was not a safe time to be outside if you lived on the Cape Flats, and especially in the labour dormitories or the townships, or travelling along Klipfontein Road through Athlone, Belgravia, Heideveld as these areas were hotspots of resistance and protests. I recall an incident that will probably never leave my mind. I was standing at the kitchen window of the Gail Court flat in Manenberg. I saw a couple of young schoolboys in uniform running and trying to jump over a shop wall. The shop was known as Babs Store in Manenberg Avenue. A few seconds later, I saw policemen with shotguns running after them. One policeman took aim and shot one of the boys. The boy fell like a sack of potatoes and then lay still, probably dead. Two were caught and I think one got away. To this day I don't know if the boy died or survived. I am still traumatised when I think of it 39 years on. It was not easy living in the townships before June 1976 but especially after June 1976 as the state became more oppressive and brutal.
HS: How do you think this event shaped youth's approach to education and particularly language?
PB: Although the 1976 uprising was rooted in the opposition to the introduction of Afrikaans medium of tuition in Bantu schools, the protest and opposition to this did not really shape or change the approach to education and the teaching of languages in schools. The uprising petered out, the ANC came to power but Afrikaans still has its place in the sun and is still taught in our schools, either a first or second language. Nothing has changed, none of our indigenous languages such as isiXhosa, isiZulu, Sesotho, are taught as first languages in our schools and I always ask the question: What was our struggle about? And by the way, Afrikaans was stolen from the slaves who first spoke the language and then "suiwered" and forced onto everyone by making it a compulsory subject. We still have Afrikaans in our national anthem.
HS: Have we done enough in the past 39 years or have we failed the students of today?
PB: I think we have failed the majority of students of today in accessing good quality education. In 1976 we had four different education systems/departments: white, coloured, Indian, and Bantu. In 2015, 39 years after 1976 and 21 years after the demise of apartheid, we are still saddled with this problem: a tiered education system with one system for the elite (private schools), another for the middle class (the former model C schools), and another for the proletariat/poor (township schools). It's a national disgrace that what we sacrificed and fought for has not brought benefits to the majority of our people who do not have access to some of our institutions of higher learning.
HS: What should we be doing at universities as a community as we grapple with real issues to do with race, class, gender and language in education?
PB: Unfortunately UCT finds itself as part of this milieu, a vestige of the past, created by colonialists. The diverse student and staff body comes from different strata of South African society and society in general has not changed its mindset from one of slavery. Since 1994 the government has not moved to create a new South Africa. UCT must also take the lead to change and transform mindsets and the way we see and treat ourselves and others. There must be more conversations among staff and students and the broader society to talk about how we can change the institution and the country because UCT is a microcosm of the broader society.
HS: How best can we honour the events of 16 June 1976?
PB: Youth Day on June 16 of each year is a good platform to commemorate the sacrifice made by the students and others on that day in 1976 and after. One of the problems we have is that history is not taught as a compulsory subject from grade 1 in our schools. History is vital so that the youth can be informed and understand and know where they come from and where they are going. If history is taught from an early age in schools then events such as the Soweto Student Uprising can and will be highlighted to our children and youth. Our history should also be taught and displayed in museums and we should write about our history – both micro and macro history – and everyone will appreciated and have a better understanding of events such as the 1976 Soweto student uprising and what followed after it.
HS: Please share any other 'then and now' insights or you may have.
PB: One of the 'then' insights is that in 1976, UCT was a groundswell of opposition and protests against the oppressive and brutal apartheid regime and one must also take cognisance that protesters were, in the main, people who were PPCWs (people previously classified white). This is significant because these students came from a privileged section of society and they had no need to protest but they stood up against injustice and inequality. I don't think they stood up because they were PPCWs but because they were human beings – their lives were also affected by the state oppression and brutality. Now, UCT is not the same. It is not the 'Little Moscow on the Hill', the place revolutionaries frequented, the place where T-shirts displaying images of Che Guevara, Nelson Mandela and Bob Marley ("Get up, stand up, stand up for your rights") were in vogue and the plaza was the epicentre for student gatherings and protests. UCT has changed and has just settled into the current milieu. I liked the UCT of 1976. UCT stood up for the oppressed and against inequality and injustice. But in 2015 this has just fizzled away.
Interview by Helen Swingler. Photo Michael Hammond.
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