Youth has been given exaggerated prominence lately, ironically because of 1976.

Well, it is a distortion to see 1976 in terms of youth. The truth is that 1976 was about black power. Not at any time in our history were black people as united and resolute in asserting themselves as they were then. Not only did those involved call themselves the Soweto Students Representative Council - not "youth" something - but they saw themselves as part and parcel of the broad black community. Their national organisation was South African Students Movement (Sasm). They acted as part and parcel of the total black community which had been fed b lack consciousness over several years since Onkgopotse Tiro had turned around the comfort zone of the oppressive regime in 1972 and the South African Students' Organisation (Saso) and the Black People's Convention (BPC) had attempted to celebrate the victory of Frelimo over colonialism in Mozambique in 1974.

The Saso-BPC trial following the viva-Frelimo rallies that had been dominant in the press had just concluded. More than anything, this trial had exposed Steve Biko's extraordinary brilliance to all those who cared to read newspapers or thrived on information.

The students inspired the creation of the Black Parents' Association comprising teachers, religious leaders, ordinary parents and community leaders. That clearly defined roles in the black man's struggle.

The students therefore looked to their parents for guidance. This involved other members of the community into which black society was organised, such as journalists who were organised into the Union of Black Journalists (incidentally black journalism found its feet during the 1976 riots, because only black people could interact with the black people involved in uprisings to gather stories of the riots), theology was defined in the context of black theology, development projects were carried in the Black People's Community Programmes, university students into Saso and the political face as Black People's Convention. It was 19 organisations that were banned on October 19 1977 when the apartheid regime struck at Black Consciousness. So everything was about black people and anyone needing to help would have to help in the progress of the black community.

Beyers Naudé, Donald Woods, and many others understood that and gave moral and material support. The central theme was black progress and the objective of removing apartheid oppression was to allow for unhindered progress of black people. It was not an end in itself or to take over positions that the apartheid government occupied. The struggle was the quest for true humanity.

Unfortunately, the public is fed by media people who have no idea what oppression really was. Most grew up long after 1976 when apartheid had virtually collapsed. You no longer needed a permit to enter another township, influx control no longer existed, eating in a restaurant in town was already a normal thing, going to a theatre in town, having a business in town, attending a white school, being able to apply directly and be admitted to study at a white university, playing sport with whites, organising and belonging to trade unions, buying a house through a bond in the township, not having to carry and be asked for a pass and, towards the mid-1980s, even having a house in town were already normal things.

It is difficult for most people to imagine or recollect what it was like before 1976 and the death of Steve Biko in 1977. What most people witnessed and recollect as the struggle was PW Botha's attempt to quell the riots of the 1980s that were mostly between black organisations fuelled by a third force. It was not the sum of apartheid oppression. It was a misguided attempt to suppress dissent.

The Black Consciousness-inspired 1976 Soweto riots and the death of Steve Biko were the only incidents in the history of SA that ever forced the apartheid government to repeal its laws. Noting on the other hand that Sharpeville in 1960 forced promulgation of more drastic anti-dissent laws, implying that the regime only realised the seriousness of attempts to undermine it in 1960.

Dr Kenosi Mosalakae

Houghton