JUNE 16TH 1976.
This day is one of our most important days in our history. I have spoken to a number of people that were present on that day and details differ considerably. I have selected Mbube Mdingi’s recollection of his memories, even though they change over a period, they talk about the reason why the students were in the position they were when the shots were fired.
We honour those 1976 children, those who preceded them and those who followed them for making our Nation a better Nation.
“I have a friend, Mbube Mdingi, ANC Mk Cadre, I will relate his version of what took place in 1976 as best as I can.
“During late 1975, the Nationalist system started implementing the system of converting the black schools to using Afrikaans, as a medium of instruction in the schools. This would have been impossible for a white English child, no matter how bilingual you are. I was very bilingual, but I would never have coped.”
“Those teachers and head-masters that showed any little objection to Afrikaans as a medium of instruction, were summarily dismissed, and replaced by a headmaster and teachers who supported the change.”
“Here on the left, Phefeni High School, this is one of the schools where the Head-Master had been dismissed and a new Head-Master in position.”
“Just about a week before June 16th 1976, the members of the school student committees held a meeting in the Orlando community hall to discuss the problem. At this meeting Tsietsi Mashinini was elected as Chairperson of the SSRC, Soweto Students Representative Council. During this meeting, the SSRC decided that they would arrange a mass protest march into Johannesburg to make their anti- Afrikaans and Apartheid Government known to the system.”
“They were still preparing for the mass march, when the Minister started introducing the changed syllabus at this high-school, Phefeni. This took place on the morning of the 15th June 1976. The representative of the Phefeni schools committee immediately contacted Tsetsi Mashinini and notified him. He then made contact with the representatives of all the other schools, there were 70 schools involved, and arranged that they have a protest meeting the very next day, the 16th June 1976.”
“All the schools were going to march via Phefeni high-school, where they were going to have a peaceful demonstration against the implementation of Afrikaans in the schools.”
“On the morning of June 16th 1976, the school children had started their peaceful protest march from the far reaches of Soweto, Deep Soweto, – Emndeni, – Naledi. They moved passed the other schools on the way, and collected the scholars as they passed.”
“When the head of the procession arrived just here at these gates, all the senior student representatives were in the front of the procession. To their disgust they found that the Phefeni scholars had been locked inside the property and this head-master would not permit them to join demonstration.”
“The entire procession had come to a halt, and the students attempted to encourage the head-master to release their fellow scholars. They were chanting and singing, chanting and dancing. They were protesting against the implementation of Afrikaans in the schools and they were protesting against the apartheid system.”
“Let us move up the road to the next corner, Moema Street. According to Mbube, Vilikazi Street, as far as you can see up the hill was a sea of children. This mass of children overflowed into the side streets.”
“Mbube was on this corner, watching the activities that were taking place down at the school. The local Municipal Police; black-jacks because of the black overalls they wore, must have been aware of the protest march because they were down at the school entrance in full force. All the black police were armed with batons, and only the white was armed.”
“Mbube says that the police were shouting at the students in a derogatory manner trying to force them to return to their schools. The students were chanting protests while at the same time exchanging pleasantries with the police. Soon the South African Police started to arrive from the side streets and Mbube saw them approaching from that direction. The South African Police at this stage were waving whips while threatening the students.”
“Then a shot rang out from the direction of the Phefeni school gate. All of a sudden he heard shots fired from a number of directions. Hector Pietersen was not far from where Mbube was, when the bullet hit him, when Hector dropped.”
“All hell broke loose in this area, after the shots were fired, the children returned with rocks and stones.”
“Hector Pietersen was picked up by Mbuyisa Makhubu and carried along Moema Street, towards the far main road to pick up transport. The photograph that the world knows so well shows this event with Hector’s sister, in anguish, walking alongside.”
“Yes, I think that photograph went around the world a few times before it got to our white press. We were living in Greytown, a small town in Natal. I became aware of the unrest in Soweto, but I always thought the children were objecting to having to learn Afrikaans as a subject. The response from the white community was why bother teaching them Afrikaans if they do not want to learn Afrikaans.”
During the past year I often thought back to just why I was so unaware of the 1976 events, then recently while surfing the web, I found some history on one of our white activists, a young teacher in 1976, teaching in Greytown where we were living, at that stage and her recollections, or lack of recollections around the uprising were similar to mine.
“That photograph, I believe was taken here, then just across there, the journalist Sofie Thema stopped her yellow VW Beetle and they loaded Hector Pietersen into the back of her car.”
“Sofie was going to take Hector to the Baragwanath Hospital, but as she turned this corner, she saw the South African Police had established a road-block and turned back and went up to the clinic that is just a 100 meters up this road.”
“Hector Pietersen was certified dead on arrival, and every year the media will contact Sofie, only once a year is she of interest, and talk to her about that morning.”
“Mbube says that the leaders of the school committees then had a meeting up at the Dube Mens Hostel, 500 m up the road, where they were considering forms of retaliation for the death of Hector Pietersen. Mbube was present at this meeting. Mbube says that the scholars were encouraged to burn all the Beer-halls and Bottle Stores as a form of revenge. The motivation given to the students was that these Beer-halls and Bottle Stores all belonged to the City Council and that the ANC considered them as a destabilising factor on the community by the system. The fathers would arrive at the station on a Friday afternoon, wage envelope in their back pocket. First stop would be the Beer-hall or Bottle store and the father would eventually get home drunk and without money.”
“According to Mbube, at this meeting the scholars made it very clear that they would do no more that burn the Beer-halls and Bottle Stores. They wished no more damage or injury to take place.”
“The Bottle Store, just outside the Dube Mens Hostel, just up the road, was the first Bottle Store to burn.”
“Soweto started burning. The effect that this fire had on our history could never have been anticipated. With the fires came looting, drunkenness, and a charged feeling that was growing throughout the community. Even people ten kilometres away were charged, more buildings were burnt, more looting took place, and numerous children were shot, two whites died.”
“The Police in helicopters, and armed vehicles, criss-crossed Soweto. Throughout Soweto the charged children, with the rebellion against the whites, growing by the minute, gathered in groups to try and find out what was happening. They could see the fires burning in the distance. Where-ever Police found groups of children gathering, they opened fire, killing and wounding.”
“Soweto was burning.”
“Mbube says the ANC obtained a list of names of children who the Security Branch was searching for, leaders of the schools, they blamed them for the rioting and burning. The ANC moved the children out of their schools and out of their homes, to safe homes, the Dube Hostel and other families where they would not be found. You could not find a young black child if you could not find him at home or at school.”
“During the next few months, the ANC, the PAC, the local Councillors, the traffic cops, they all filtered students out of the country, initially to Swaziland. Once in Swaziland, the children were given the option to complete their schooling, or move to a military base in Mozambique or Tanzania, where they were going to receive training. Both the PAC and the ANC had operations in Swaziland that were recruiting and attending to the students needs. What the ANC did not realise, was that the Security Branch informants had already infiltrated the schools, prior to June the 16th. These names were on their list, and the ANC moved these informers to Tanzania, Mozambique and other bases with the scholars.”
“These informants were able to feed information back to the Security Branch, on who was receiving training, and what they were being trained for, what the targets were, and who was moving in and out of the camps. This information was devastating and resulted in a number of the youth being arrested soon after arriving back in the country, and being sentenced to terms on Robben Island.”
“The students on June 16th 1976 catapulted Soweto into the homes of the rest of the world. The South African struggle that we managed to keep on the inside pages, was to become front page in the news of the world. The white Government would never survive the power that was rising. Both the PAC and the ANC military forces; received a new boost from the youth that were being recruited.”
“I have read various articles on what happened during that period July 1976 to December 1976. There was an element that motivated going back to school, with their studies being of prime importance and those who promoted the boycott of schooling and the exams. The youth got themselves in ‘work stay away’ demands on the adults.”
“There is no doubt, the country was in the grips of a movement that would change the country and it was not going to stop.”
Today, as I reflect on our ten years in Soweto, I feel the youth energy bubbling towards change. We need to listen to their voices:
Cedric de la Harpe