A project in which former foes are working together to repair and rebuild eight Soweto high schools that were involved in the June 16 uprising is more than symbolic – it is powerful action.
So says Dan Montsitsi, who was one of the leaders of the 1976 student uprising, more recently a member of Parliament for 20 years and, today, is the acting chairperson of the June 16 Foundation which is joining hands with members of the South African Defence Force Association (SADFA) to “Sing a new song” of reconciliation as they partner in the Soweto schools initiative.
“For us this is not merely symbolic, it is essential for ex-conscripts to be seen contributing to the development of our schools. It is important for students to see the former soldiers clad in overalls side-by-side with students clad in overalls doing gardening, working together tilling the soil to ensure the fruits that emanate are going to be distributed among child-headed households, impoverished children, and the schools themselves,” says Montsitsi.
The poignant partnership of people who were once at opposite sides of the apartheid divide is taking place in a year which the South African Council of Churches (SACC) is calling a fountain-head year for healing and reconciliation in South Africa.
Historians report that 40 years ago during the Soweto student uprisings of 1976 at least 200 students, including Hector Peterson, were killed when police opened fire on June 16 at students protesting against the introduction of Afrikaans as a compulsory medium of instruction at schools.
This year, 2016, the SACC is harvesting the combined commitment to reconciliation of those who were the youth on June 16, 1976 — both the students who dodged the bullets of the South African Police during the Soweto uprising and the conscripts under the South African Defence Force (SADF) conscription policy.
“This year representatives of both parties are now senior veterans of both sides, sharing a joint vision for a reconciled South Africa,” says the SACC.
“We honour and celebrate as symbolic, the “toenadering” — coming together in spirit — of the two groupings that represent the bedrock of South Africa’s conflictual past and its attendant pain and woundedness: the SADFA veterans and conscripts standing in the gap for all the security forces, and the June 16, 1976 generations. This is significant even though the military conscripts were not at all involved in the police township shootings of 1976,” adds the SACC.
In the spirit of this harvest of goodwill, the SACC has called on South Africans, in June this year, to look at ourselves and seek to heal the wounds of past and present racial, ethnic, xenophobia, gender and other socially repressive prejudices and exclusion.
Ministry of reconciliation
The SACC says the Christian community is charged with the ministry of reconciliation explained in 2 Corinthians 5:18 : Now all things are of God, who has reconciled us to Himself through Jesus Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation.
The SACC recognise as of primary consideration in South Africa, the need for racial and ethnic reconciliation on account of the country’s racist history and because racism and ethnic dissonance have shown signs of re-emerging in present day South Africa, along with the xenophobia.
It is against this backdrop that on June 11, 2016 Christians participating in the SACC’s ‘Singing a New Song’ campaign will follow the 1976 students’ march route and participate in a reconciliation-themed service. Among them will be members of the June 16 Foundation who participated in the 1976 student uprising and members of SADFA, many of whom who were conscripts at that time. These South Africans who were formerly polarised by apartheid are joining hands and working to repair and rebuild the eight schools in Soweto that were at the heart of the protests on June 16,1976 and to “Sing a new song”.
The SACC says it is a time and opportunity for South Africans under God to embark on a new journey based on the values of confession, forgiveness, reconciliation, and healing; to find their voice in the singing of a new song, as it says in Psalm 98:1: “O sing to the Lord a new song!”.
Reverend Frank Chikane, senior vice-president of the SACC emphasises that confession, forgiveness, reconciliation, and healing is unfinished in South Africa when he writes: “The world called this ‘coming together’ of the enemies who were formerly committed to destroying each other, to establish the new South Africa, the miracle of reconciliation . . . But this ‘reconciliation’ was at a political level rather than at the level of the people, especially among the ‘foot soldiers’ on both sides of the conflict. The joining of the armed apartheid and liberation forces was also called ‘reconciliation’, but it was merely ‘integration’.”
Lot of work needs to be done
Chikane says: “Today, the South Africa we live in is rife with inequalities that point to an unreconciled nation. If this country is to move completely out of the apartheid era, and raise a new generation of South Africans who are free of the strongholds of this country’s past, a lot of work needs to be done”.
He highlights issues of healing and reconciliation, poverty and inequality, economic transformation, family fabric, and anchoring democracy.
The reverend urges South Africans to make a commitment to pray and work for a South Africa of promise – a reconciled, equitable and sustainable society, free of racial, gender, tribal and xenophobic prejudices; free of corruption, socio-economic discrimination and violence and for each child born to grow to their God-given potential.
“It is my prayer that blacks and whites from all corners of South Africa will accept the responsibility of working with their respective churches, and in every area of their lives, to leave a reconciled nation to our children,” says Chikane.
Referring to the unique June 16 Foundation-SAFDA school repair and rebuilding joint venture, Montsitsi says: “This is a very big first step, because there are a number of other programmes that have been identified together with the SADFA members”.
“What we have seen from these ex-conscripts is that there is a will and commitment to make a contribution and ensure that our grandchildren will live in a truly non-racial South Africa.
“We regard the ex-conscripts as ambassadors of a future South Africa,” says Montsitsi.
From talk to walk
The joining of hands between the June 16 Foundation and the SADFA is powerful action indeed, which is a practical start to turning the talk of reconciliation into a walk of reparation and healing.
Montsitsi says for the fruits of reconciliation to be enjoyed and practically experienced by all South Africans much work needs to be done in education and economic empowerment as well as ensuring that all South Africans have equal opportunity to excel whether it be in sport, academics, politics or arts and culture.
He also points to the issue of land redistribution as being a necessary step on the path to reconciliation.
“For everybody to live together in a just South Africa there must be equity, we have to share.”
Montsitsi warns that South Africa is living on borrowed time.
“If we do not address the issue of reconciliation, if we do not address the issue of communities coming together, then it means we are preparing the country for a future explosion.
“I can still remember the explosion of 1976 and the anger that was there. Now, the problem that we have currently is challenges of unemployment, inequality and poverty, because there is not enough equity or economic spin-offs for the majority of people to truly enjoy the fruits of freedom.”
Montsitsi says our reconciliation needs to come from the heart, from being patriots and from being brothers and sisters in Christ.
“If we love our country, we must do everything we can to ensure that all people live in harmony. All individuals must be able to see the fruits of reconciliation and how dynamic a South Africa we will build once we are united.
“We are depriving ourselves as South Africans as long as we are unreconciled, but we are hopeful that through coming together with the SADFA members we will be able to show how profound it will be to come together as South Africans,” adds Montsitsi.
He says he has been touched by the actions of the ex-conscripts, their openness, commitment and willingness to sacrifice their time and effort for the good of all South Africans.
“It is touching to see people travelling all the way from Cape Town, Bloemfontein and Pretoria to Soweto to make a contribution to South Africans coming together.”
Louis Gerber, who is a social entrepreneur, veteran from the conscript generation, serves as project facilitator in SADFA and trustee of the Community Chamber of Commerce Trust (CCC Trust), says the 40th commemoration of the June 16th student uprising heralds a new season.
He believes nation-building is a constructive form of reconciliation and together with other members of SADFA is contributing to programmes in the eight Soweto high schools that participated in the student uprising of 1976 that will both improve facilities and prepare students to enter an entrepreneurial environment once they leave school.
“The first thing we are ensuring is that students understand financial literacy to manage their budgets. We are educating students to save rather than merely be consumers through the teaching of the Biblical principal in Proverbs 13: 22 ‘a good man leaves an inheritance to his children’s children, but the sinner’s wealth is laid up for the righteous’.
“We have also developed environmental projects, literacy projects, and a community banking platform through which people can make interest-free loans to start businesses.
“History shows us that South Africans have achieved political power without economic power. It is vital that economic power is taught, because some communities have unemployment rates of up to 70%.
“Our aim is not only to help the students, but unemployed parents too, because more than 40% of the parents from the Soweto schools are unemployed,” says Gerber.
He believes that both healing and the reconciliation of relationships will come out of these activities.
“We are not joining hands with the June 16 Foundation for political gain, but to take development projects into the community as a grassroots implementation of rebuilding, reparation and reconciliation of relationships,” says Gerber.
He says reconciliation is a process and the SACC’s ‘Singing a New Song’ campaign on June 11 is the start of a journey for lasting peace through which South Africans can be united through justice and healing.
Uniting South Africans
“We believe the SACC’s “Sing a New Song” campaign has come at the right time, because the affliction of racism that divides has increased in the country, but the campaign is about uniting South Africans, it is not about me and them, it is about us.
“So, spiritually I have developed through the campaign, because I am now at a place where I am able to freely go out and share with people,” adds Gerber.
Reconciliation in our land is an unfinished business and until it is completed we will not truly have enjoyed the fruits of Madiba’s Rainbow Nation or complied with the Lord Jesus Christ’s commandment in John 13:34-35 : A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.