TUDENTS rose against injustice and inequality that was the manifestation of the apartheid system.
We have since 1976 shared the grim stories of what happened on that fateful day of June 16.
The record of what happened is likely to grow as more people that were affected continue to share their experiences.
More importantly, South Africans must ask themselves why the disadvantaged youth of 1976 had to take the lead in the vicious fight against inferior education.
It is important for South Africa not to forget or miss the lessons that history presents to the country.
June 16 is a reminder to rulers that citizens do not have an inexhaustible level of tolerance for injustice or bad governance.
Surely June 16 should be a constant reminder to South Africa that the poor and disadvantaged rank education highly among their priorities. They value education because it is perceived as a reliable means to escape poverty.
When the apartheid government placed obstacles and irrational language prescriptions on access to education a violent reaction for change resulted. We need not lose sight of the fact that those who continue to mess up with education are playing with fire and brimstone.
Today the poor state of education is blamed on the arrogance and sheer disregard by organised black teachers and students. What has gone wrong South Africa?
As we do our soul-searching exercise let us give credit to the stalwarts, students and teachers of 1976 for playing a leading catalytic role for benevolent change. Teachers and students then were true liberators of mind, body and soul.
The students who led others in the morning of June 16 1976 were very mindful that their actions had far-reaching consequences for black people.
The regenerative and constructive partnership that existed between community, teachers and students was vital for the success of student's social action that led to the demise of the inhuman system.
The students' social action was an expression of the fundamental values of society. They were not just a rebellious lot without a cause. The victory achieved was made possible because students acted out the core values of parents, teachers and all sectors of society.
The 1976 generation launched and won a moral war against apartheid oppression and exploitation not just for students but for all.
June 16, therefore, was a unifying public protest against the arrogance of politicians and foolishness of government bureaucrats.
South Africa has not yet taken to heart the rich lessons in social mobilisation that we owe to the informed radicals of the class of 1976. A high level of social analysis and consciousness-raising programme preceded the public expression of the rejection of the racist system. The leadership for the struggle first involved themselves in serious dialogue among all sectors of the black society.
The dialogue and analysis also involved average people, progressive professionals and educationists.
The marchers of 1976 were not just a mob in action. They were neither bored delinquents nor purposeless brats. Concerned leaders preceded that march by conducting briefing sessions for fellow students.
Did you know that each student was made responsible and committed to care for at least two others during the march? They held hands and sang as they moved to confront a diabolical enemy together.
Disciplined social action was what 1976 was about. It was not planned to destroy that the community held dear. It was a life-affirming and liberating action.
Only the symbols of oppression were the target in response. It is sad today that striking workers or so-called representatives of latter generations of student protesters have lost the spirit of care and diligence that was characteristic of the 1976 planned social action.
In a society based on wicked racist values and violence the student action was primarily for change based on values of civic responsibility, respect for life and promotion for human dignity.
June 16 should teach us that education is all about community and nation building. It must remind South Africa that inequitable development and tardy public service breed contempt for our fundamental constitutional and societal values and aspirations.
The events should also focus our attention on the fact that injustice has a very short life-span among the informed and mentally liberated.
Finally, we have learned that we must not seek comfort on acts of denial and ignore genuine legitimate demands and resultant protests against injustice be it in regard to human settlement, education, safety, security, land, health, employment, wealth distribution or any desire for social and economic wellbeing that manifest itself within any section of our society.
l The writer is a Black Consciousness stalwart as well as chairperson of the Steve Biko Foundation and trustee of the Nelson Mandela Children's Hospital