‘We were prepared to die for what we believed in’

Mxolisi Kanayo.

“We gave up our dreams. We deserted our families and put ourselves in the firing line so that our young brothers and sisters could attain a better and quality education.”

This is how Mxolisi Kanayo, 55, a former student activist and a member of the ANC’s military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe, described the 1976 student uprising.

At the time, Mr Kanayo was based in Queenstown.

The unrest started when the apartheid regime imposed Afrik-aans as a medium of instruction in black schools across the country.

Talking to Vukani, Mr Kanayo, who now resides in Site C, said they were fed up with the Bantu education system that was never designed to empower them with knowledge, skills and ways to better their lives.

He described it as an education system that sought to make black people slaves and inferior to white people.

He added that under the oppressive apartheid regime, black people were relegated to menial jobs, with few opportunities for them to become successful workers or professionals.

Mr Kanayo said they took a bold decision to defy the implementation of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction, with little consideration for the consequences of their decision.

He added that it was a matter of standing firm on what they believed in or forever be taught in what was considered to be the language of the oppressor.

He said the government had deprived them of many opportunities to attain quality and better education and by the time of the student uprising, they had had enough.

Mr Kanayo said the government had applied many tactics that made it impossible for black students to enrol at institutions of higher learning and obtain qualifications.

Before the uprising that was sparked by the police’s violent reaction to protesting high school pupils in Soweto in 1976, he said, students had embarked on other protest action, but their plight was largely ignored.

“We had the willpower. We were united in our struggle and we had the same vision and goals.

“We wanted to attain an education that would create an opportunity for employment for us. We refused to be taught in Afrikaans and we were prepared to die for what we believed in.

“I remember the day vividly, as pupils had gathered in Queenstown and marched through the streets voicing our anger and frustration,” he said.

He said 18 pupils, some of them his friends, were brutally killed by the police in Queenstown.

How he escaped death, he said, he does not know, as he was in the frontline when police opened fire.

“Unfortunately, I was among the students who were arrested during the uprising and I was detained for six months for my involvement in the protest. And remember, I was 15 at the time,” he said.

Like many pupils, he said, he later on joined Umkhonto we Sizwe in 1982 while he was still a student.

He said many pupils who raised their concerns about the ill treatment they were receiving from the government were tortured and executed by the government.

He believes that the current generation does not fully recognise the importance of the commemoration of June 16, nor do they understand the brave stand they took.

Mr Kanayo said the youth of today should imitate their actions in advancing their battles and stand united like they did.

“The main challenge the youth of today are facing are high fees charged by the universities and they have identified that as their challenge.

“They should be working together to find ways to curb that challenges.

“The #feesmustfall campaign showed that if they can work together they can achieve great things and they can come back and fight other challenges they grapple with such the high rate of teenage pregnancy and crime,” he said.