The image that classically characterises 16 June 1976 is that of a tearful Mbuyisa Makhubo carrying a slain 12-year-old Hector Pieterson, flanked by a hysterical Antoinette Sithole, Hector’s sister. Loaded with anguish, the image, taken by Sam Nzama with an Asahi Pentax film camera, is a marker of history. It emotively historicises the student-led uprising in Soweto against the forced use of Afrikaans as the medium of instruction in schools. Nzama’s image is unambiguous and intact.
Just for a moment, imagine that image shattering into a variation of visual representations over time. This is precisely what has happened post 1976, especially since the turn of the noughties till today, and it has seen visuals of school uniforms being featured to mark 16 June. Not entirely a commemoration, these celebrations are mostly social drinking affairs that see participants gather at public parks to ‘remember’ the youth who lost their lives in the 1970s. Though aspects of this ritual are open to criticism, it has become entrenched in South Africa’s popular culture.
The role of the visual image has ceased to be iconographic. The era of the meme – as illustrated in the trove of modified Google images of 16 June – desecrates, re-mixes and gives new meaning to visual interpretation. In these hyper-visual times, digital technology has lent greater complexity to our relationship with images as they capture struggle, beauty, selfies and other everyday banalities. Moreso, ‘unambiguity’, as in Nzama’s iconic image of 1976, has become obsolete in a time when mobile devices are used to capture acts of protest.
Similar to the events of 1976 under the apartheid regime, South Africa has hit a fork in the road in terms of politics, economics and socio-cultural issues. This ‘where to?’ moment is punctuated by an ethically bereft political class that is increasingly becoming sinister in the eyes of the electorate. At this juncture, like most politically significant events in the digital era, visual documentation has become a contested space.
News reportage of widespread protests largely competes with and moderately complements mobile phone cameras of the protesters. In this flux, the peripheral gaze of news camera and the personal politik of civic players are both destined to converge somewhere on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram.
As this critical mass – peppered with varying subjectivities – feeds into a collective protest message, can history hold? Can history handle the density and constant assault of the modern-day protest image, as it does that of Mbuyisa, Hector and Antoinette? This inquiry leads to the deduction that certain moments are way too seismic to be erased, despite the collective digital-age short attention span. Filmmaker and producer duo Sifiso and Tshego Khanyile are proof with their documentary Uprize. The doccie opens up wide the events of 1976 by giving accounts of artists, ghetto historians and woke girls and boys who played influential roles in the movement. The film allows the audience to view 16 June through a different lens via a strategic approach to archive selection. It also holds the line as a product conceived in the time of selfies.
Sure, history is a great teacher of all things past, but it has to be said that an instantaneous moment is its greatest motivator. The particularity of the image taken by Nzama in 1976 is as loaded with poetry as that of a pouting teen holding up a selfie stick. The latter foregrounds modern society’s obsession with engagement – likes, shares, FOMO – whilst the former fixates on urgency. Their intrinsic difference is that one has historically been viewed from a place of unambiguity, whereas the other has not.