For those who do not know South Africa is today celebrating or commemorating a very significant event in its unfolding history. On this day in 1976 the youth in schools in the Johannesburg area joined the fight against apartheid.

They set in motion a chain of events that would finally culminate in the momentous 1994 free elections and the inauguration of a new democratic government and Nelson Mandela as the country’s first black president.

At that point in my career, I was a radio reporter based in Cape Town and working for the SABC news teams. Both for radio and television my beat was agriculture, tourism and sport. In my work I therefore was somewhat shielded from what happened on the country’s streets where the new democratic forces where increasingly engaging – often in a violent way – the politicians and the forces which controlled the apartheid system.

Cape Fynbos

Looking back now I will regard June 16 as one of those significant dates in the history of our country. Think back, more than 350 years ago, this beautiful place at the southern tip of Africa was colonized by alternating European powers, starting with the Dutch, continuing with the French, and then followed by the British. Originally their arrival in Africa seemed to have been for very humanitarian purposes. Ships sailing around the Cape needed fresh supplies of fruit and vegetables and other fresh stuff to keep their crews healthy on those exceptionally long and arduous voyages.

So, one can say that the establishment of fresh produce fields and maintaining livestock which could replenish supplies on these ships where memorable events which we should all celebrate too. Among the Afrikaans speaking communities the day their forefathers started moving to the north of the country in their ox wagons to get away from British rule was probably also significant. It set in motion the dominance of whites in all sectors of the South African economy.

Then we discovered diamonds and gold in our African soils and soon the British followed to the north to defeat these free-spirited Afrikaners, further get their hands on the country’s riches, and created the South Africa that we know today. At that stage it was a union with four provinces – but it was firmly ruled by the British. This was another incredibly significant milestone because it set the boundaries of our beloved country.

While the British had very firm control and influence in South Africa after it was established in 1910, increasingly the influence of the dominant conservative Afrikaners increased. After what was for some a very unpopular South African participation in World War Two, the conservative forces took control in the elections of 1948.

The horrible time of the oppression of the apartheid government started. Since then, there are so many celebrated contributions by South Africans who fought – often at risk of their own lives – to change the system of government in the country and create freedom for all. This should be celebrated – as we should celebrate the growth of the South African economy, the establishment of infrastructure for water, roads, transport and exports.

A dark and unsettled period

The ruthlessness and naked power of those who orchestrated the apartment system is something we should not celebrate. As a senior journalist I got into contact with many of these controversial figures. I must say that one just had to look straight ahead, do your job and try and get the most information you could out to the public So they could form their own opinions.

My work was often done in the boardrooms end in the countryside where we met dynamic and leading South Africans who also made a major contribution to the development of the country. I also celebrate these people who contributed so much to our country.

In these times there were two gentlemen who had a significant impact and the way I experienced June 16, 1976, and the subsequent events. One was the much-maligned Dr Danie Craven who was the head of South African Rugby. Few people knew that Doc Craven was hated by the apartheid political system and if they add their way, he would never have been in that position. Craven was a gifted person, extraordinary in development of the game of rugby in South Africa and farsighted in the initiatives he took to pave the way for a united rugby fraternity.

The melon harvest

Many years later I met Desmond Tutu – at the time in the 70s and 80s very much the icon off the struggle against apartheid. In the 2000’s I could sit down with the Arch and discuss those events. Like Craven, Desmond Tutu was an inspirational leader. One wonders what would have happened in our country if those two leaders, and perhaps many others who work behind the scenes, could have been involved in our country’s path for the future.

Perhaps June the 16th, 1976 would not have happened. Steve Biko and many other struggle figures would probably have been alive. Perhaps our country would have been far beyond its present sorry state. If we could all have worked together from the 60s and 70s onwards when there was an incredible desire to develop something new, who knows what could have been achieved.

They say people never learn and the world never learns either. Therefore, we keep on repeating mistakes as we rewrite new chapters in history. As we celebrate the heroic deeds of the youth of our country we cannot help wondering where those inspirational leaders are today. Where are they in government and where is the youth of today in leadership positions in this country?

Frankly, after the corruption and looting of the past decade and the fact that infrastructure has been allowed to decline to such an extent that vast sections of the country are now without water, proper sanitation, electricity, and the basic services we should all take for granted. How can we accept this some 26 years after our democracy was founded?

In the 70s, for instance, our country built an effective transportation system and storage stamps across the country. The words of the then Director General of Water Affairs come to mind. He warned that unless the country would continue to extend its water systems we would run out of water by 2030. It is sobering to note that since those words were uttered very few new storage dams were built. This is just to illustrate how we have dropped the ball.

So today, on 16 June 2021, 45 years after Hector Peterson died in gunfire in Soweto, Fredo experiences so degree of conflict – between celebration and condemnation. Celebration of the class of 1976 but condemnation of the politicians and organs of state which allowed us to deteriorate into this mess. It is so sad that all the good men and women of this country could not stand together to develop a future which all of us would have appreciated today.

We would have indeed opened one of our best sparkling wines, lit a fire and cook traditional meals – and talk about the good things we achieved.