A story begins with an image; a single frozen representation of a nuanced narrative. Going beyond the image is essential to understanding the dynamics of a story. On June 16, 1976, a peaceful and warranted resistance against the Bantu Education policy which made Afrikaans a compulsory language of instruction led to a bloody demonstration killing hundreds of innocent school kids. The image the world saw was of Hector Pieterson, being carried by Mbusyisa Makhubo after he was shot by South African police. Forty years on, we are witnessing similar images from South Africa and filmmaker Sifiso Khanyile takes us back to this period of infectious youth in his documentary film, Uprise!
Sifiso Khanyile’s documentary released in 2017 is a brilliant exposé on how the student uprising of 1976 became a landmark pit-stop on the road to liberation of the black South African. From a personal perspective, through interviews with former students, teachers, writers and artists affected, the documentary highlights the critical importance of education, both as an instrument of learning and unlearning. Its brings to life the need to rekindle these old flames of passionate resistance against neo-colonialism on the continent.
Apartheid is not a novel subject for filmmakers or researchers anywhere in the world. Its understanding is relevant as contemporary South African society is heavily tinted by its stench. However, there is a need to isolate various incidents and policies that led to its destruction, specifically by black South Africans who were most affected. In Uprise! the focus is on education. The film exposes viewers to the Bantu Education Act (1953) which sought to cage the abilities and minds of young South Africans for the labour market and how ingenuity, creativity and unapologetic resistance of the African child through revolts and schools strikes caused freedom to triumph.
From the early 1950s when the policy was introduced, the African child was indoctrinated and condition to serve white interests. Black South Africans, inspired by the newly won independence of African States from colonialism and the African-American Black Power movement, slowly began to organically organise themselves to demand for better. This sense of community is one of the major threads that binds the narrative, highlighting the critical role local impoverished communities played. Soweto might have been the epicentre of the struggle, however, Uprise!, links all the small and organic student movements where the ideas of freedom resonated, inspired by the writings and teaching of leaders like Steve Biko, Nelson Mandela and Teboho Tsietsi Macdonald Mashinini.
Uprise! goes beyond that singular image the world saw and reveals all that was cropped from that frame by history. Through interviews of those who lived through dodging bullets and avoiding tear gas because they demanded better quality education, the filmmaker builds a coherent narrative around the students uprising of 1976 with a personal and sympathetic tone, liberating facts into actual lives lived and truncated by injustice. The use a single focused beam of light on the faces of the interviewees, delineates them from the consistent black background. This stylistic choice creates a visual centre that unites each of their unique perspectives, making sure their words are clear and explicit so the viewer feels the emotions behind them. The sombre score by Mushroom Hour Half Hour of transient jazzy sounds also heighten the atmosphere, filled with grief, anger and pain in the film.
Decades after the Soweto Uprising, a new wave of student-led protests sweeps across South Africa, described as the Fallist Movement. The new generation continues where the students of Soweto in 1976 left off by agitating for affordable, quality education and decolonizing academic spaces. The 2015 Rhodes Must Fall (#RhodesMustFall) campaign in particular, led to the successful removal of the statute of Cecil Rhodes from the University of Cape Town campus and effectively galvanized the new voice of South African students. Each year since 2016, the internet is flooded with images from university across South Africa where students demand for affordable education under the #FeesMustFall hashtag. However, Uprise! only mentions this movement in passing and makes no attempt to marry it with the film’s focus although they are clearly related. It would have been interesting to see just how much the Fallists Movement identify with and draw from 1976 in their operation and organisation. What we see on the internet today is similar to what was happening in Soweto in the 70s. Uprise! could have gone beyond to introduce us to the current state of education, particularly for Black South African children, whose parents and family might have been affected by the protests and policies of the past.
The structures of the Apartheid regime have not been completely dismantled as the Fallists Movement highlights, making it more critical to pay attention to a film like Uprise! Things might have improved but there is still a lot to fight for. This documentary is an important reminder of where the struggle began and where it needs to go.
Written by Hakeem Adam
Image Credit: Wikipedia Commons, Sifiso Khanyile