By MURPHY BROWNE (Abena Agbetu)
On September 25, 1992, several newspapers scattered across U.S. cities (including Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Orlando, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.) carried articles about a movie portraying the African experience in apartheid South Africa. Even the late Roger Ebert, America’s best-known film critic, had an article published in the Chicago Sun-Times that day about the movie, Sarafina. The movie was an adaptation of the musical based on the lived experience of an African school girl, “Sarafina”, during the brutal apartheid era.
Sarafina is set in Soweto, a township in South Africa which became internationally known on June 16, 1976, when White police opened fire on a group of African students during a demonstration. The demonstration was organized to protest the decision of the apartheid regime to force African students to learn Afrikaans. The compulsory teaching of Afrikaans, which was the Dutch derived dialect used as the language of choice of the descendants of the Dutch settler/colonizer class living in South Africa, was resisted by the African students. Africans, already forced to speak a European language (English), did not look kindly on being forced to speak a European dialect (not surprisingly Afrikaans is now considered a language) borrowed from the Dutch with a sprinkling of German and Portuguese.
The result of the Soweto demonstration/protest of African students was brutal police retaliation, with reportedly two African students killed and many injured. The photograph of a wounded and dying 13-year-old Hector Pieterson carried in the arms of another student, Mbuyisa Makhubo, as Hector’s obviously distressed 17-year-old sister, Antoinette Sithole, ran alongside them, went viral. That photograph became the symbol of the White police brutality against African students in South Africa in much the same way as the brutally beaten and disfigured body of 14-year-old Emmett Till became the image of White supremacy and brutality during the Civil Rights era in the U.S. Today, the body of Michael Brown lying uncovered for hours on a street in Ferguson, Missouri after being killed by a White police officer stands right alongside that of Emmett Till.
The deadly savagery of the White police attack against demonstrating African students in Soweto gave rise to more protests from African students and international condemnation of the White minority apartheid regime. The brutal crackdown, including the killing and injuring of African school children by White police, led to more protests across South Africa, which resulted in approximately 1,000 African students killed by White police.
The “Bantu education” sought to not only force African students to learn Afrikaans but also to mis-educate African students so that they could only aspire to work in menial jobs that would benefit White people living in South Africa. The “Bantu Education Act No. 47” authored by Hendrik Frensch Verwoerd (then Minister of Native Affairs, later Prime Minister) is described on the South African History Online (SAHO) website: “Its stated aim was to prevent Africans receiving an education that would lead them to aspire to positions they wouldn’t be allowed to hold in society. Instead Africans were to receive an education designed to provide them with skills to serve their own people in the Bantustan ‘homelands’ or to work in manual labour jobs under White control. This legislation was condemned and rejected as inferior from the time of its introduction. This cornerstone of apartheid ideology-in-practice wreaked havoc on the education of Black people in South Africa, and deprived and disadvantaged millions for decades. Its devastating personal, political and economic effects continue to be felt and wrestled with today.”
The Act is also described as: “A pillar of the apartheid project, this legislation was intended to separate Black South Africans from the main, comparatively very well-resourced education system for Whites.”
The musical Sarafina was first presented in June, 1987 at “The Market Theatre” in Johannesburg, South Africa. Sarafina premiered on Broadway on January 28, 1989 at the Cort Theatre and closed on July 2, 1989, following 597 performances and 11 previews. The movie Sarafina, starring Whoopi Goldberg as an African teacher in Soweto, opened in American cinemas in September, 1992. The movie brought the South African student protests of 1976 to Americans in 1992, the same year Nelson Mandela was negotiating with Frederik Willem de Klerk in an attempt to steer South Africa into becoming a democracy where the African majority would for the first time have the right to vote and enjoy other human rights.
On September 26, 1992, a “Record of Understanding” was signed at a meeting between F. W. de Klerk, the “State President of the Republic of South Africa” and Nelson Mandela, the President of the African National Congress (ANC) held at the Kempton Park World Trade Centre in South Africa. The signing of this important document resulted in a commitment to a multi-party system of government and to the writing of a new Constitution for a democratic South Africa. Almost two years later, over a four-day period from April 26-29, 1994, South Africa held its first democratic elections where all citizens 18 and older regardless of race had an opportunity to vote. The ANC with Mandela as its leader won the election and South Africa had its first democratically elected government and President (Mandela).
On September 25, South Africa’s parliament elected Kgalema Motlanthe, a former trade unionist, freedom fighter and deputy leader of the ANC as interim President when South Africa’s second democratically elected president, Thabo Mbeki, resigned just nine months before the end of his term in office.
In 2014, as South Africa celebrates 20 years of democracy there is an entire generation of African students for whom the term “Bantu education” are words in their history or social studies/social science books.