Address by President Nelson Mandela on the anniversary of the Soweto Uprising on 16 June 1976

16 June 1994

Master of Ceremonies
Honourable Ministers of the Government of National Unity
Honourable Provincial Premiers and cabinet members
Leaders of political parties
Leaders of the various youth organisations
Comrades and friends

When the tragic events of 16 June 1976 erupted in Soweto, the question posed itself to the whole of South Africa: "So whereto now? In the sacrifices that were borne by Hector Peterson and many other young people, there seemed to lie an answer. That the destiny of the youth was the grave and the hangman's noose, detention and long terms of imprisonment, exile and banishment.

That is what those who arrogated to themselves the status of slave-master sought to achieve. In the false comfort of their ill-gotten power, they convinced themselves that the answer to South Africa's problems was to murder, to maim and to persecute. But they had typically closed their eyes to the historical truth that it is a God-given right that the slave should revolt. To the question, "So whereto now?", the answer of the youth and people of South Africa was: to battle, to struggle, to more bravery. Today, we mark the 18th anniversary of June 16th as a free people, proud and full of joy for taking the resistance of that generation and others before and after it to its final conclusion. Yet we mark this day also with a feeling of sadness: that the thousands who deserve to be here with us today are no more. We salute them all.

We commemorate this day, not with the song of defiance on our lips. This is no longer a day of protest by an excluded majority.

We have elected a government of our choice, at the head of which is the African National Congress.

The brave young people of that generation are today eminent premiers, ministers and members of national and provincial parliaments. They are taking their rightful place in the ranks of the new South African National Defence Force and other institutions of state and civil society.

Our presence together here - as representatives of the Government of National Unity, various political parties, youth organisations and structures of workers and communities - symbolises the fact that this is truly a national day.

The Government is reviewing all South Africa's holidays, to ensure that our calendar is reflective of the total experience of all the people. And to us it is patently clear what the mandate is from this gathering and many others throughout the country. With regard to today, in particular, we urge that employers honour agreements with workers regarding June 16th as a paid holiday. But we would be misrepresenting the sentiments of the Class of '76 if our only concern was that this day should be declared a national holiday.

Rather, we should first and foremost, approach it from the point of view that the heroes of those struggles had a noble mission. They were inspired by a thirst for knowledge:

  • knowledge which knows no colour;
  • knowledge acquired through persuasion and hard work;
  • knowledge that taps talents and releases creative energies; and
  • knowledge that puts South African youth on par with the best in the world.

As we enter the new and glorious epoch that June 16th helped to usher in, we will do well to emulate that heroism and turn it into an asset for the tasks that lie ahead.

We have achieved our freedom. But formal liberation will be an empty shell if we do not immediately start addressing the social conditions bred by apartheid. The Reconstruction and Development Programme must be implemented without delay.

It is therefore fitting that youth organisations of various persuasions have adopted the theme: Youth United for Reconciliation, Education and Development - as an embodiment of the spirit of this commemoration. We also acknowledge the presence in our midst of eminent representatives of the United Nations International Children's Education Fund; and express our confidence that your presence in our country will, in more ways than one, assist our programmes to improve the conditions of our youth.

The Government is convinced that among the first challenges that we need to address in this regard is to inculcate the culture of learning and teaching in all schools.

No matter what the origins of the profound education crisis might be, the fact is that this has become our collective heritage.

We are no longer petitioners, exerting pressure from the sidelines.

We have to roll up our sleeves and together tackle the problems.

I am personally encouraged by reports of a return to normality in the schools, since the elections. This does show the commitment on the part of teachers and students to expend their energies in ensuring that we truly become masters of our own destiny.

The problems wrought by apartheid education have lately been compounded by such terrible tendencies as the proliferation of criminal gangs, weapons and drugs in some of our schools. This cannot be allowed to continue. All-round discipline, within an education strategy involving all players, is fundamental to the solution of these problems.

In order to address the root causes of the education crisis, we intend to table a Bill in parliament soon, to eradicate discrimination and take the first major steps towards ten years of free quality education.

For these changes to be effective, there has to be close co-operation between government and organisations of teachers, students, parents, workers and the business community. The task to make South Africa a learning and learned nation belongs to all of us.

The culture of teaching and learning means also that there should be a culture of rights in the schools. Teachers deserve to be treated with respect by students, society and government. In turn, they will enjoy such respect if they act responsibly, appreciating the central position that their fraternity occupies in society.

With regard to this year in particular, we fully support the initiatives to make up for the time lost during recent national events. We hope that the intensive learning effort will constitute the beginning of a nation-wide and continuing campaign.

The opening of doors to the world offers more than just new opportunities for the youth. It is also a great challenge for us to improve our standards to match those of other nations.

I wish to use this opportunity to send out an invitation to the youth of our country to be a full part of the exciting transformation that we are engaged in. The government is involved in discussions with different youth organisations on how they can best make their contribution to the nation-building and development effort.

During the address at the opening of the last session of parliament, we announced the decision to establish a National Youth Commission. We have now gone a step further and established a Cabinet Committee on Youth under the supervision of Minister of Sport and Recreation. We further wish to welcome the progress being made by the youth formations towards the setting up of a youth parliament in the form of the National Youth Council.

In these endeavours, political youth organisations in particular need to address the problem of their functioning simply as duplicates of their mother bodies. Needless to say, what is needed are creative programmes which promote the interests of all youth and involve African, Coloured, Indian and white youth.

In so far as government is concerned, the aim is not to attend to the youth as if you were some separate and special species from outer space. Our central approach is to ensure that young people are fully integrated into the social, economic and political life of society.

Our policies must turn into reality the principle that every child deserves to have a decent home and be brought up in the loving care of a family. The terrible legacy of street children has to be attended to with urgency. A collective effort has to be launched by the government, civil society and the private sector to ensure that every child is looked after, has sufficient nutrition and health care. The government has already started taking steps in this regard.

We have, further, taken steps to ensure that within the shortest possible time, we empty our jails of children. The process of finding alternative centres for them is under way.

Personally, I regard this as an urgent priority. In a humble attempt to contribute to this effort, I am consulting with relevant individuals and bodies, for me to set up a Presidential Trust Fund representative of people beyond the ANC and the mass democratic movement, to specifically deal with the problems of street children and detainees. I intend to make a contribution of R150 000 a year to this fund - irrespective of the decision that parliament will make about the salaries of elected representatives. Further details will be announced in due course.

The Fund I have referred to will assist in alleviating these problems. But I do recognise, as all of you do, that a lasting solution lies in comprehensive socio-economic upliftment programmes. At the same time, the youth, especially from disadvantaged communities, need to realise that we cannot rely only on governmental programmes and charity. We also have to take initiatives in our communities to pool our meagre resources for projects such as bursaries and skills upgrading.

One of the most important problems facing the youth and society is the AIDS epidemic and we can no longer afford to hide behind tradition and embarrassment, pretending that this problem does not exist. To do so is to consign our nation to certain disaster. We need to join hands now to ensure that the campaigns launched make the maximum impact.

It serves no purpose to continue blaming the past for these problems, including drug trafficking, gangsterism and violence. We must all take responsibility by tackling the root causes at the same time as we ensure effective law-enforcement.

The security forces, working hand-in-hand with communities, have an enormous role to play in this regard.

The responsibility of maintaining public safety and security is not one of the police alone. The people more especially the youth should take an active part in the police-community forums that are being set up across the country. And, together, we must transform the institutions of security to become servants of the people. For this reason, we should all condemn in the strongest terms the shooting and killing of policemen and women.

In addition, our communities cannot allow a situation in which young men and women continue to harass communities and butcher one another in the name of community self-defence.

We are convinced that there are many cadres of integrity in self-defence units who have played a crucial role in times of need. But the true measure of their integrity has been displayed in their co-operation with community structures to implement a programme that will see to their return to school, integration within the security forces or participation in skills-upgrading. Those who defy these programmes cannot justifiably claim to act on behalf of the community or expect community protection for their evil deeds.

I call on all youth to join us in the effort to build peace and reconciliation in our land.

The Government of National Unity is on course and all the participating organisations are co-operating well. As demonstrated at the OAU Summit from which we have just returned, we are, as a nation, making a tremendous impact on the continent and the entire world.

The manner in which the youth co-ordinating structures have organised this event is a clear statement to the nation and the world, that the youth is committed to the healing of the wounds of the past.

With you, we say to all South Africa's youth, black and white, including those in the army and police: June 16th is your day. You might have been on the other side of the dividing line of apartheid. But now is the time to join the majority in building a new and glorious future for our country and all its people.

There is nothing to fear from democracy. The African National Congress seeks no retribution. Our message of reconciliation is inspired by a genuine love for our country. When we call for the truth we do so in order to ensure that all of us come to terms with the past. So that we can bury those evil experiences secure in the knowledge that future generations will recoil from any temptation to repeat them.

Let us all rise to the challenge of the freedom that we have won. That challenge is to create a better life for all South Africans: to create jobs, to provide free quality education and open up opportunities for skills training, to build houses, to provide health facilities and other basic services.

Let us together answer the question, "So whereto now?", with a new youthful determination to learn, to build and to live life to the full. The country thirsts for your talents and energy.

Together, let us get South Africa working!

Thank you.

Source: Nelson Mandela Foundation