Soweto 1976 deserves better than Badvertising

The worst crime of a new ad "celebrating" the martyrs of 1976 is the message does not accord with the realities of young black South Africans.

The famous, but tragic, Sam Nzima image of Antoinette Sithole and Mbuyisa Makhubu carrying the murdered Hector Pietersen. Used here only to illustrate the point.

South African ad agencies continue to prove intolerable. This time it’s Johannesburg Cape Town agency Black River FC, which decided it was a good idea ahead of the anniversary of the Soweto Uprising on June 16 to re-imagine a Sam Nzima photograph taken on that faithful day. The iconic photo is of a distraught 17-year-old Antoinette Pieterson running alongside 18-year-old Mbuyisa Makhubu, who was carrying the lifeless body of Antoinette’s 13-year-old brother Hector.

Hector was just a baby, but that did not stop the apartheid regime’s police force from shooting him and at least 175 others dead for having the temerity to reject an education system designed to teach them little else than to say “yes, baas” to the commands of white people.

So how did Black River FC on behalf of its client, 24-hour pay-TV music station Channel O, decide to reimagine this awe-inspiring history? Easy. They replaced Hector’s body with a graduation gown and parchment, turned Antoinette’s frown upside-down, and transformed the look of terror on Mbuyisa’s face to one of jubilation. That’s how it works, right? South Africa is free and today’s youth should “live the dream of the youth of ‘76 died for” by going to school and graduating. Oh, and watching Channel O, of course. The ad is a dime-a-dozen stay-in-school public service announcement that, to conceal its vacuity, appropriates gratuitously and superficially iconography from the country’s revolutionary history. It is lazy. But it’s worst crime is that the message does not accord with the reality faced by the majority of young South Africans.

Because, 80% of the country’s public schools schools are dysfunctional. Only a third of high school graduates in any one year attain grades that will allow them to enter university, should they so wish, and far fewer of those admitted actually end up graduating. Further-education-and-training colleges are in a state of disarray and subject to both real and perceived quality problems – both by students and the market place. That’s without even considering the cost of higher education, which is prohibitively set for many young people.

And it’s also without considering what is taught at schools, universities and colleges – which #RhodesMustFall, #OpenStellenbosch and other student-led movements have shown still centres Western and phallocentric knowledge, histories and paradigms as the norm and any attempts to usher in plurality are met with resistance.

Is it unsurprising then that 41% of young women and 31.6% of young men are neither employed nor enrolled at an education institution – and black kids in particular have limited economic mobility.

That we have not had another June 16 – a time when young people were aware of the raw deal they were being dealt and stood up against it – is probably thanks to people like the bright sparks behind this ad. They perverted history to sell young people false dreams and avert their eyes from the real. They’re also probably part of the group of people behind the truly astonishing number of South African ads that suggest black folk will dance for anything.

Oh, and four decades later we still don’t know where Mbuyisa is. Papering over a person whose whereabouts are still unknown, whose family is still clinging to the hope he might still be alive, is an appalling way to remember the past and live the present ethically.

I wonder what Mbuyisa’s family will say to yet another abuse of his image.

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Update: A previous version of this article stated that Black River FC is in Cape Town. The agency is, in fact, in Johannesburg.

Further Reading

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We are not just marking the end of 2019, but also the end of a momentous, if frustrating decade for building a more humane, caring future for Africans.

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The Chimurenga arts collective explores the relevance of FESTAC, a near forgotten, epic black arts festival held in Nigeria in the mid-1970s, for our age.

Detritus of revolution

Nthikeng Mohlele’s novel Small Things (2013) provides a rejoinder to J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace (1999), depicting a black man’s perspective on the failures of South Africa’s transition.