The day came and went. The cars came and went. The smiles and awkward glances came and went. The annoyed looks and angry words came and went. All of it came and went: yet the memory of 1976 and its profound meaning for our present context still remains.
Our peaceful protest began at 10am on 16 June at the traffic circle on uMhlanga Rocks Drive – with signs, songs and smoky clouds scattered about the sky above us. Our aim was disruption: to the numbness surrounding the solemnity of the day, as well as to the convenient forgetting of the pain of the past that has led our nation to breaking-point under the weight of rampant injustice and inequality.
The reality we were all aware of from the start was that our act of disruption was incomparable with the sacrifice and bravery shown by the youth of 1976. The privilege of standing at a traffic circle with a sign, knowing that there would be no danger of bullets and dogs, was a stark reminder of the gravity of the day we were wanting people to remember. That being said, the pristine roads of uMhlanga were also not the rock-strewn, dusty roads of Soweto in the 70’s. So why did we choose to perform our privileged act of disruption in such an exclusive, well-to-do area of the city? Well, simple: if there’s a place where white privilege, excessive wealth, and cushy middle-class living is most on display – then across the river, through Durban North, and onto uMhlanga is that place. Yet beyond that, it is a space (just like many other privileged, wealthy spaces throughout the country) that is deeply undisturbed in its manner and form: in other words, it is one of the clearest examples of what it looks like to forget the pain of 1976 and remain ignorant of the present brokenness of our society.
This reality first became apparent when three private security cars showed up after about ten minutes into the protest. The black security officers promptly informed us that they had to make sure we weren’t causing any trouble because the area was under their specific jurisdiction. This led us to understand that these private security firms were the equivalent of the Metro police for the greater uMhlanga area: in other words, the area itself primarily relied on private security companies as opposed to the public police protection that the rest of the country receives. In response to us enquiring about how this could be, the security officers simply responded: “Ay, abelungu.” These men, who could not chase us away, remained with us until we left the area several hours later: the watchful guardians of this undisturbed, other world.
There were just over 30 of us gathered at the protest, all standing dispersed around the circle with our various signs: “1976?”, “When will white privilege and white supremacy fall?”, “Rainbow nation for what?”, “Do whites care?”, “No land, no justice”, “We don’t want white tears, we want justice” – to name but a few. By and large, the reception of our presence was varied: some hooted and cheered, some laughed, some gave us the middle-finger, some stared in disbelief, and some even stopped to take photos and converse with us. If this had been the total outcome of the day, we all could have just gone home as a group of activists who had merely made people curious on their way to the mall – but, as it always is when one pushes hard enough, this was not to be.
It is symptomatic of a broken society when the slightest disturbance of normality causes sudden outbursts of rage and violence. We witnessed this in action when a middle-aged white man, with his wife and child in the car, stopped in the middle of ongoing traffic to not only argue with us over what we were doing, but he even got out of his car to furiously chase down one of our group members who had come to film the protest. This moment of absurd rage was the revealing moment of disturbance. Such an act could be watered down if it had been a man wanting to show off in front of his friends or some similar scenario: but this was an older white man on his way to the mall with his wife and child. What drives you to get out of your car, leave your family behind, and chase down someone who’s offended you with a sign or camera? At this simple traffic circle, outside a regular shopping mall – a space of apparent “normality” – we witnessed the rage simmering beneath the mask of privilege. We saw the absurdity that comes to life when it’s narrative is disrupted and brought to question. Did we not see this in more drastic fashion at the beginning of the year at the University of Free State rugby game? The disruption (without the presence of violence) of a simple sports match precipitated an absurd, wrathful response of violence from white players and spectators against black protestors.
Indeed, the ridiculous act of this white man was the game-changing moment that made the day (even with it being so far removed from the reality and sacrifice of 1976) something worth having been part of. Not for the sake of glorifying our measly, privileged activism, and neither for the sake of objectifying the rage of a white man. No, simply it was because the moment provided a window for us to see through the façade of the cheap colours that make up our supposed rainbow nation, and to stare right into the ugly face of unhealed pain and unquestioned privilege. June 16, 1976, was a day when that privilege took the form of hostile white policemen with smoking guns and snarling dogs. June 16, 1976, was also a day when that pain took the form of young black students – some as young as 12 and 13 years of age – being shot and killed for the sake of justice and freedom. June 16, 2016, at the traffic circle on uMhlanga Rocks Drive, was a day when that same privilege and pain still proved itself to be unhealed and simmering below the surface.
Staring into the ugly face of our society – whether in the angry white man jumping out his car, or in the bewildered looks of those passing-by who all seemed to be asking the question: “huh, what happened 40 years ago?” – was both sobering and stirring. Sobering – because it is a profound and humbling experience to stand against the forgetting of the bravery of 1976, especially when such a stand is so far-removed from the reality of that day in Soweto; and stirring – because one cannot help but feel energized to continue the struggle against injustice and inequality in our nation, one cannot help but want to find more opportunities to disturb the absurd normality of South Africa and, in doing so, honour the memory of the youth of 1976.
So to this end we hope: let this small act of resistance, this small initiative of questioning the narrative of the privileged and the forgetful, let it be just the beginning of a greater call towards true transformation, true restitution, true justice, and true reconciliation in our land.
By Michael van Niekerk – IZWE LETHU