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South Africa, Apartheid, and the Soweto Uprisings

Author: Various

South Africa country profile

South Africa has one of the continent’s biggest and most developed economies.

Up until 1994 it was ruled by a white minority government, which enforced a separation of races with its policy called apartheid.

The apartheid government eventually negotiated itself out of power after decades of international isolation, armed opposition and mass protests.

The democratically-elected leadership encouraged reconciliation and set about redressing social imbalances, but the economy has struggled.


Republic of South Africa

Administrative capital: Pretoria

  • Population: 50.7 million
  • Area: 1.22 million sq km (470,693 sq miles)
  • Major languages: 11 official languages including English, Afrikaans, Sesotho, Setswana, Xhosa and Zulu
  • Religions: Christianity, Islam, indigenous beliefs
  • Life expectancy: 53 years (men), 54 years (women)
  • Currency: Rand
UN, World Bank


President: Jacob Zuma

South African President Jacob Zuma

GETTY IMAGES: The leader of the ruling African National Congress party, Jacob Zuma, was chosen president by the newly-elected parliament in May 2009.

He has spent his entire adult life since 1959 in the service of the ANC. He joined its armed wing Umkhonto we Sizwe in 1962 and spent ten years in prison for conspiracy to overthrow the apartheid-era government.

After his release he left South Africa and was a leading figure in the ANC abroad until he returned home in 1990 to take part in the talks that brought apartheid to an end.

Mr Zuma has been at the centre of numerous controversies: He was named in a corruption case related to a major arms deal; he said he showered after sex with an HIV-positive woman to reduce his risk of being infected and he was accused of using public funds to make improvements to his private home at Nkandla.


South African newspaper Isolezwe

GETTY IMAGES: South Africa is the continent’s major media player, and its broadcasters and press reflect the diversity of its people.

Established state-run and commercial TV broadcast nationally, and hundreds of thousands of viewers subscribe to satellite and cable. South Africa-based MultiChoice markets satellite pay-TV in dozens of African countries.


Some key events in South Africa’s history:

Students march during Soweto uprising in 1976

GETTY IMAGES: South Africa’s white minority government resisted popular protests against its rule for many years

1910 – Formation of Union of South Africa by former British colonies of the Cape and Natal, and the Boer republics of Transvaal, and Orange Free State.

1912 – Native National Congress founded, later renamed the African National Congress (ANC).

1948 – Policy of apartheid (separateness) is adopted when National Party (NP) takes power.

1960 – Seventy black demonstrators killed at Sharpeville. ANC banned.

1976 – More than 600 killed in clashes between black protesters and security forces during uprising which starts in Soweto. The challenge to white rule escalates over the years.

1991-1994 – Negotiated end to apartheid leads to first non-racial elections and formation of a Government of National Unity under Nelson Mandela.

2009 May – Parliament elects Jacob Zuma as president.

Nelson Mandela walks from prison

GETTY IMAGES: Anti-Apartheid icon Nelson Mandela walked free after 25 years in prison to become a revered statesman


From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

How apartheid worked

Sign from South Africa during apartheid. This sign meant that only white people were allowed in this specific area.

During apartheid, people were divided into four racial groups and kept apart by law.[1] The system was used to deny many rights of the non-whitepeople, mainly black people who lived in South Africa in the beginning of the apartheid times. The laws allowed the white people to be in certain areas. Black people had to carry special papers (passes) or have permission to live and work in particular areas. The government separated mixed communities and forcibly moved many people. Many laws were made, for example: people of different races were not allowed to marry each other; black people could not own land in white areas or vote.

The United Nations did not agree with the South African government’s apartheid policies.[2] There were protests in South Africa, like in Sharpeville in 1960[3] and in Soweto in 1976.[4] After the Sharpeville Massacre, the UN tried to get South Africa out of the UN in 1974. France, the United States, and Britain stopped that from happening. The Soweto Uprisings started because Africans were forced to study some subjects at school in Afrikaans. Many black people did not like Afrikaans because it was the language of the apartheid government and they did not understand it.[5]

Ending apartheid

In 1989 F. W. de Klerk became the President of South Africa. He wanted to end apartheid. In a speech in 1990, de Klerk said the African National Congress was legal again. He also said that Nelson Mandela would be released from prison.

In 1991, the UN created the National Peace Accord. The purpose of the Peace Accord was “to bring an end to political violence” in South Africa.[6] It was agreed on by 27 organizations and governments. After this the Convention for a Democratic South Africa (CODESA) was formed. CODESA worked to find a solution to the violence.

The first democratic election was on 27 April 1994. Nelson Mandela became president, with De Klerk and Thabo Mbeki as deputies. This is considered the end of apartheid rule.

Although black South Africans were granted equal rights by law, there is still economic inequality between blacks and whites. In 2012, South Africa had its first census in over ten years. It found that the average black family earned one-sixth (about 17%) of what the average white family earned.[7] “These figures tell us that at the bottom of the rung is the black majority who continue to be confronted by deep poverty unemployment and inequality,” President Jacob Zuma said when the results came out. Nelson Mandela was a big factor in getting rid of the unjust apartheid laws. [7]

Sign at a beach: This beach has been reserved for white people only.

Aim of apartheid

The aim of apartheid was to separate the people of South Africa into small independent nations. The black ones were called Bantustans. South Africa said they were independent countries and exchanged ambassadors but other countries did not. The National Party government did not want to spend a lot of money on this project. They also wanted to keep the majority of South Africa’s land for white people, especially the richest places, like the gold mines of Johannesburg. They wanted black men to work in these mines for little money but their families had to live far away.


  1. Schaefer, Richard T. editor Encyclopedia of Race, Ethnicity, and Society Volume 1 Sage Publications Inc. 2008 page 83
  3. Haas, Michael International Human Rights: A Comprehensive Introduction Routledge New York 2008 page 84
  4. Pieterse, HJC Desmond Tutu’s Message: A Qualitative Analysis Uitgeverij Kok, Kampden, the Netherlands 2001 page 17
  5. Martin, Phyllis, Patrick O’Meara editors Africa: Third Edition Indiana University Press 601 North Morton Street Bloomington, Indiana 1995 402
  6. “National Peace Accord” (PDF). United Nations. Retrieved 4 October 2017.
  7. Cohen, Mike (October 30, 2012). “South Africa’s Racial Income Inequality Persists, Census Shows”. Bloomberg. Retrieved May 22, 2016.

Signs of Apartheid
What South Africans had to look at every day for four decades.
by Amanda Uren

1956 A sign common in Johannesburg. IMAGE: THREE LIONS/GETTY IMAGES

These South African signs are examples of what was known as Petty Apartheid. South Africa’s Apartheid — an Afrikaans word meaning “apart-hood” — was implemented by the National Party after winning the country’s 1948 general election. Petty Apartheid was the range of laws implemented by the National Party that placed detailed restrictions on the


of the different races in the country.

While Grand Apartheid was responsible for demarcating separate Homelands within South Africa, Petty Apartheid began with the 1949 Prohibition of Mixed Marriages. This was followed by 1950’s Immorality Amendment, which outlawed “unlawful racial intercourse” or “any immoral or indecent act” between the races.

The core of the Apartheid system was the division of people into racial groups using a complex and trivial series of tests. The result was the classification of the population into one of four groups: White, Black, Indian and Colored, with Colored and Indian groups further subdivided. (The group names are capitalised here to indicate their use under Apartheid.)

The “pencil test” decreed that if an individual could hold a pencil in their hair when they shook their head, they could not be classified as White.

The tests were primarily based on appearance — skin color, facial features, appearance of head (and other) hair. Most infamously, the “pencil test” decreed that if an individual could hold a pencil in their hair when they shook their head, they could not be classified as White. The tests were so imprecise that members of an extended family could be classified in different racial groups.

Every year people were reclassified. In 1984, for example, 518 Colored people were defined as White, two Whites were called Chinese, one White was reclassified as Indian, one White became Colored and 89 Colored people became Black.

For political, diplomatic and economic reasons, certain groups and their descendants, including Japanese, Taiwanese and South Korean immigrants, were classified as “honorary White.” Only the White group could live free of any restrictions. All other racial groups suffered the laws of Petty Apartheid.

1952 A woman sat in the wagon reserved for White people to protest against Apartheid. IMAGE: KEYSTONE-FRANCE/GETTY IMAGES

As these signs showed, the restrictions intruded into all aspects of life. While Colored and Indian groups had access to some privileges, the sharpest distinction was between Black and White. The 1953 Separate Amenities Act of 1953 stated that separate facilities no longer had to be “substantially equal.”

The result: Black-only bus stops serviced inferior Black-only buses. Black-only ambulances stopped at inferior Black-only hospitals. Black-only education was provided at inferior Black-only schools and universities. Beaches, bridges, swimming pools, washrooms, cinemas, benches, parks and even burial grounds were all segregated.

There were a handful of places where segregation didn’t occur, notably drug-dealing nightclubs and churches. Though the lack of segregation in churches was not for want of trying. Blacks could not attend White churches under the 1957 Churches Native Laws Amendment Act, but the law was largely unenforced.

South African President P.W. Botha began to tear down Petty Apartheid in the late 1970s and early 1980s. But while the outward — and literal — signs of Apartheid started to be removed under Botha, the level of brutality against Blacks increased. Following the end of the Apartheid system in 1994, Botha was found responsible for gross violations of human rights under the nation’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. He maintained he had no regrets.

1956 White children paddling in a pond marked by a sign reading “For European Children Only.” IMAGE: THREE LIONS/GETTY IMAGES

Apartheid cannot be reformed; it has to be eliminated.


c. 1955 Signs in English and Afrikaans, in Wellington railway station, South Africa, enforcing the policy of apartheid or racial segregation. IMAGE: EVANS/THREE LIONS/GETTY IMAGES

1957 Signs in both English and Afrikaans in Johannesburg. IMAGE: ULLSTEIN BILD/ULLSTEIN BILD VIA GETTY IMAGES


1960s A park for Non-European women. IMAGE: GETTY IMAGES

1967 A Taxi rank for white people. IMAGE: GETTY IMAGES

1971 A sign outside a park restricts its use to ‘European mothers with babies in arms’. IMAGE: MR HEWISON/KEYSTONE/GETTY IMAGES

1974 An apartheid notice on a beach near Cape Town. IMAGE: KEYSTONE/GETTY IMAGES

1976 An apartheid notice on a beach near Cape Town. IMAGE: KEYSTONE/GETTY IMAGES

1978 A rail wagon with the words ‘Non-Whites’. IMAGE: LEHNARTZ / ULLSTEIN IMAGE VIA GETTY IMAGES

1982 A railway carriage reserved for white people only. IMAGE: GETTY IMAGES

1986 Toilets restricted to use by “Black, Coloreds & Asians” at a bus station. IMAGE: WILLIAM F. CAMPBELL/THE LIFE IMAGES COLLECTION/GETTY IMAGES

I don’t care what they remember about me. I led South Africa on the right path.

P.W. BOTHA, 2006

1986 Whites only sign in foreground at restricted beach, with bathers in background. IMAGE: WILLIAM F. CAMPBELL/THE LIFE IMAGES COLLECTION/GETTY IMAGES

I apologise in my capacity as leader of the NP to the millions who suffered wrenching disruption of forced removals; who suffered the shame of being arrested for pass law offences; who over the decades suffered the indignities and humiliation of racial discrimination.

F. W. DE KLERK, 1997

1988 A sign reading ‘Bathing area for Whites Only’ on a beach at Victoria Bay, Western Cape. IMAGE: SUSAN WINTERS COOK/GETTY IMAGES

Soweto riots Africa Media Online

The day our children lost faith

Soweto Riots, 1972, David Goldblatt / South Photos

On June 16, 1976, an estimated 20,000 children from schools in the township of Soweto in Johannesburg, took to the streets to protest the introduction of Afrikaans as a language of instruction in local schools. Afrikaans was seen by many as the language of the oppressor. The Afrikaans Medium Decree of 1974 forced all black schools to use Afrikaans and English in a 50-50 mix as languages of instruction.

On June 16 learners gathered at Orlando Stadium in a protest organised by the Soweto Students’ Representative Council’s (SSRC) Action Committee. The protest was supposed to be peaceful and many teachers supported it after the Action Committee emphasized discipline.

When the march began, learners marched carrying signs “Down with Afrikaans”, “Viva Azania” and “If we must do Afrikaans, Vorster must do Zulu”. They found that their route had been barred by police. The leaders of the Action Committee asked marchers not to provoke the police and the march continued on another route, eventually ending up near Orlando High School.

The confrontation between learners and police got out of hand when police released dogs onto the crowd who responded by stoning the dogs to death. Police then began to open fire on the children. Over 176 people were killed that day. Protests quickly spread to townships all over the country

Soweto Riots, June 16, 1976, Baileys African History Archive

Soweto Riots, June 16, 1976, Baileys African History Archive

Soweto Riots, June 16, 1976, Baileys African History Archive

Soweto Riots, June 16, 1976, Baileys African History Archive

Soweto Riots, June 16, 1976, Baileys African History Archive

South Africa, Soweto: Minister of Environment & Tourism Martinuis van Schalkwyk explaning the June 16 picture to his son. During the Shot Left campaign, the minister spent a night in Soweto. With them is Hector Petersen’s sister Antonette. 09/04 Photo: Motlhalefi Mahlabe/South

Credits: Story

Photographic Archive — Baileys African History Archive
Photographer — Graeme Williams / South Photographs
Photographer — David Goldblatt / South Photographs
Photographer — Motlhalefi Mahlabe / South Photographs
Text — Baileys African History Archive and Africa Media Online

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.

Africa Media Online

Africa Media Online

I Saw a Nightmare – Chapter 2
“I Heard There Was a Riot in Soweto…:” A Narrative of June 16, 1976

We have Soweto with us.
—Carol Hermer, The Diary of Maria Tholo

A Winter Morning


It all began on a winter morning in June. The air was cold and heavy with the smoke of the last night’s coal fires, the weak winter sun still ineffective against the morning chill which stubbornly clung to the shadows and the stony ground. Parents had long since made their way through the line snaking across the open ground, waiting for the green Putco busses to take them into the “sheer massiveness of the concrete city … so intimidating, so immovable and so impressive,” carrying what they needed for the day in paper bags or the occasional briefcase. Others braced themselves for the crowded platforms at Dube station, Mzimhlope, or New Canada or huddled with their fellow workers on the back of an open-bed truck on their way to work, gathering their tan second-hand military overcoats around them, drawing their woolen caps deeper into their faces against the morning cold.

At the Morris Isaacson High School in Central Western Jabavu, a simple sign hung at the gate: “No SBs [security branch police] Allowed. Enter at your own risk.” At another high school in Phefeni township the word Asingeni (we will not enter) was painted on the doors.

Orlando West school entrance with sign: “Afrikaans is sign of oppression.”

Sign (close-up): “Afrikaans is sign of Oppression.”

Sign (close-up): “Afrikaans is sign of Oppression.”

For several weeks already, schoolchildren at a number of schools had been staying away from classes to protest the imposition of Afrikaans as the language of instruction in schools:

It’s only a matter of time before we get organised. We talk about this every day. Here in the township and at work. We talk in our own language and the whites don’t understand what we say.

Now the children were resolved to make a public stand, organizing a march and a one-day boycott of classes to pledge solidarity with other schools affected by the enforcement of the Afrikaans ruling and to bring pressure to bear on the authorities to listen to the students’ complaints:

In Naledi that evening, a curious conversation took place between Lilli Mokganyetsi and her brother, who had already graduated from high school and was waiting “for a call to the university”:

When I arrived at home, he said, are you going to demonstrate tomorrow? I said, What is “demonstration,” I don’t know, what are you talking about [laughs] … I’m sorry? No, he said, no, are you going to go about with placards? What is a ‘placard,’ then? [brother:] Poster. What is a “poster”? [laughs] You know I couldn’t just understand … anything, let alone demonstration on its own. [brother:] No man, I have heard that students will be demonstrating tomorrow against this Afrikaans as a medium of instruction. I wonder what’s going to happen. And I said, no, what are you talking about, do you mean we are not going to school? He said, no, man, you’ve got to go to school. You go to your school, they will show you how to “demonstrate.” You don’t understand, you!

The night before June 16 “was a night where we spent preparing ourselves for the march.” There was no “grand plan that extended for days and for months,” although considerable, if hasty, planning had gone into the preparation for it. Murphy Morobe was among the student leaders who created the placards for the march. The placards read simply “Away with Afrikaans” and “Down with BantuEducation.” They saw themselves “on this day” marching from different points in Soweto toward Orlando West, to one of the junior secondary schools that had been longest in boycotting classes around the Afrikaans issue.

The idea was that we would be marching towards that point as a way in which we are going to pledge our solidarity with that secondary school and thereafter in fact we are going to look towards the situation where we would anticipate and expect a response from the authorities in terms of our demands that we are going to place on that day. And the idea was, that subsequent to that we are going to have a mass rally, where the student leaders, Tsietsi Mashinini and them, would be able to address the students and thereafter in fact break off the march.

The March

[T]he march would start in Naledi for all those schools in that area and … Naledi High School would lead them from that point of departure. That column of the march would then come down to Morris Isaacson High School, collecting all the students on the way. The schools in the Meadowlands area would come along and join up with the other Morris Isaacson column at Orlando West High School. They would then proceed as a main column to Orlando Stadium which was going to be their destination… schools in the Orlando East complex would culminate with the others at Orlando Stadium.

Naledi High School. Source: Civil Case WLD 6857 (1977), Vol. 440

At Naledi High students streamed out of their classrooms when the bell rang for morning assembly. From under their clothes they pulled posters and placards—”The Black Nation Is Not a Place for Impurities. Afrikaans Stinks”—and as they moved toward the gates of the school their voices gathered force: “Power! Away with Afrikaans” and “Free Azania, power! At their head Tebello Motapanyane urged them forward, stopping only briefly to warn a white press photographer that pictures would get them into trouble with the police. The students poured out onto Nyakale Street and marched toward the Thomas Mofolo Junior Secondary School a mile away in Naledi, where 500 students had already gathered for a meeting at 7:30 that morning.

Poster: “To Hell With Afrikaans.” Source: SAB K345

Poster: “Afrikaans is Terrorism.” Source: SAB K345

In Central Western Jabavu, the assembly

bell at Morris Isaacson High School had rung at the usual time also. But as the students gathered they broke into song: “

Masibulele ku

Jesu, ngokuba wasifela

” (Let us thank Jesus,

for He died for us) without waiting for deputy headmaster Norman Malebane, who had been walking to assembly, to conduct morning prayers. Then they sang “

Nkosi Sikelel iAfrika

(God bless Africa), and “marched out of the school grounds into Mphuthi Street,” leaving their startled teachers behind.

[W]hat they were singing was the anthem, that is Nkosi Sikelel iAfrika. […]

The other song they were singing, is an English song, “We shall overcome.”

Morris Isaacson School. Source: Civil Case WLD 6857 (1977), Vol. 440

Outside one schoolyard a big crowd of students waved placards (“Afrikaans Is a Poison”) and sang (“Nkosi Sikelel iAfrika” [God bless Africa] and “MorenaVuluka“). Another group of students, from the Morris Isaacson High School, joined them. As the students moved through Mofolo toward Dube they were joined by others from schools along the road, and their numbers swelled. Younger schoolchildren cheered and watched from the side of the road. Others joined the march.

Lilli had “even forgotten” what her brother had said the night before. She prepared herself as usual and then went to her school, a secondary school in Tladi, bracing herself for the mathematics examination she was to take. But the exam was interrupted by the arrival of the students leading the march:

[T]he school was arranged in this fashion [she demonstrates]…

[HP-M: Like a horseshoe? …]

Ja, this is the administration, classes, classes and this is the square, where we hold our morning devotions. So now they came this way, and our class was here. So we came in, and joined them in the assembly there. We, of course toyi-toyed, but we never knew of toyi-toyi then [laughs]. And then, suddenly when they were to move out, we thought we were supposed to remain [laughs] … you know, because I still remember I was … , I just remained behind, thinking that everything is over now. But the teachers, principals, they were also, you know, everybody was just frightened. And then, when I was remaining behind like this, I had a boyfriend, a long-time boyfriend, he was residing in the very same street with us, but now they had moved to Orangefontein. And he was attending a certain secondary [school] in Naledi. So he saw me, he grabbed me with the hand: ‘Come Lilli, come, let’s go.

At the Thesele Secondary School in White City, another neighborhood of Soweto, at about 8 a.m. Antoinette Musi joined the other girls in her school for morning prayers.

Whilst praying, I heard a noise as though it was that of an aeroplane. Thereafter I saw a group of children carrying placards. Because we knew nothing, they came with placards singing. We then moved backwards. They then asked us to join them and we were surprised why we should join them. Some of the schoolchildren refused to join this group of children. They then forced us to join them. The principal got out of his office and told us not to join that group. They then terrified the principal; he immediately ran into his office. We then joined the group and moved away with them.

The children, boys and girls, were singing and talking loudly among themselves and, although they “promised to assault us too,” Antoinette Musi remembered that they “looked happy.” She “was surprised” and “did not know exactly what to do” but left her school with the others and went to Itshetsepeng School, where they “found the schoolchildren there already outside. They also joined us.” By this time the crowd of schoolchildren had grown so large that their very numbers and enthusiasm induced others to join them.16 Another 15-year-old student said, “We were at a good school, a good high school. We liked our teachers and we studied hard. But when the word went out, we knew we had to join the rest.”

While they were marching the children lifted their fists in the air, and any cars they came upon were stopped. It was mostly boys who did this—”they would lift up their hands with their fists and command the driver of the car to also do the same sign.” Some did and were allowed to pass; others did not.

Children, Alexandra. June 1976. Source: SAB K34

Some of the schoolchildren would tell the others that they should leave them to go and the others would say they must be assaulted, talking amongst each other, these scholars.

Boys with fists raised, Soweto. June 1976. Source: SAB K345

But Antoinette did not see anyone being assaulted or anything happening to their cars. Philippa Newlin Thompson, vice chairman of the African Self-Help Association, encountered such a group of students around 9:30 A.M. while visiting some of the construction work being done on four-day nurseries (preschools) of the Association. She was driving from Senaoane on the main road, which ran past the building of the Urban Bantu Council, when

I met a demonstration by hundreds of children marching towards Molapo. The children were all good humouredand obviously enjoying their demonstration. A boy of about 15 or 16 took it upon himself to guide my car slowly through the oncoming children, but after a few minutes when the wave of children seemed endless, he suggested I drive onto the parking area of a garage at Moletsane outside which I had then arrived. This I did. The children continued to march past waving banners about the abolition of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction. After a further 5 or 10 minutes a rather older youth came up to me and said “You must go that way” (indicating a side road) “and that is an order.” As I was beginning to be concerned about the 10 am start of our meeting, I didn’thesitate, and found my way through Tladi and back onto the road.

The Central Western Jabavu office of the West Rand Administration Board was on Mphuthi Street. Samuel S. Tlotleng’s duties as a social worker included his assisting young people (“the youth”) with their “reference book problems,” writing affidavits for them, and referring them to the department to which they should direct their complaints. He had heard “children speaking” the day before the uprising, “saying that they were going to have a march … into Orlando stadium where they are going to have a meeting … in protest of being taught in the medium of Afrikaans.” He reported to work as usual on the morning of June 16, at eight o’clock, and saw many children on their way to school. About an hour later “they came down marching, they came down Maputi Street.” There were about a hundred of them carrying placards, singing freedom songs, and holding up their clenched fists in the “power salute.” At the offices of the West Rand Bantu Administration the staff, including Mr. Hobkirk, who was white and who dealt with those youth seeking work permits, were all standing on the stoep (porch) and watching the march go by. Although the marchers saw Mr. Hobkirk, “[t]hey just raised their clenched fists, shouting ‘power'” in English, and continued on their “orderly” way. The employees of the West Rand Administration Board “just went back to [their] normal duties.”

By the time the schoolchildren reached Orlando High School “we were all mixed 25 up, different uniforms … we were all together,” and Antoinette Musi did not “see anybody leading.” 21 A male student stopped and addressed the students before they marched on to gather in front of the closed gates of Orlando West High School. He said:

Brothers and sisters, I appeal to you to keep calm and cool. We have just received a report that the police are coming. Please do not taunt them, do not do anything to them, just be cool and calm because we do not know what they are after. We are not fighting.

Crowd with posters, Alexandra. June 1976. Source: SAB K345

The Confrontation

By 10:30 A.M. several thousand students had gathered on the stone-topped knoll near the Orlando West High School, on the school grounds and among the houses in the neighborhood.

Where this school is situated you can actually see the Orlando Police Station across the railroad there.

Orlando Police Station

Orlando West Junior Secondary School: “Phefeni Junior Secondary School,” Orlando West. Source: Civil Case WLD 6857 (1977), Vol. 440

View from Orlando Police Station

The geography of the uprising is quite striking, in particular how the sites for police stations were clearly chosen to provide the police with a vantage point from which to literally and figuratively oversee the township. The view here is from the barred hallway window of Orlando Police Station across the valley toward the flat roofs of Phefeni Junior Secondary School and Vilakazi Street.

Witnesses said that there must have been between 5,000 and 6,000 children,24 most of them students from Naledi High School, Morris Isaacson High School, Orlando West High School, Orlando North Junior Secondary School, Empangeni Higher Primary School, Themba Sizwe Higher Primary School, and Thesele Secondary School. Lieutenant Colonel Kleingeld appealed to the students to disperse, first in Afrikaans and then even in broken Zulu. But the students “had grievances which could no longer wait.” Their clenched fists held high, they surged forward, shouting “Amandla!” (power), “Inkululeko ngoku!” (freedom in our lifetime), and “One Azania, one nation!” One of their leaders, Hastings Ndlovu, urged them on.

“The air resounded with menace” and, defiantly, they sang:
Asikhathali noma bes’bopha
We don’t give a damn, even if imprisoned. Sizimisel’ikululeko. For Freedom is our ultimate goal.

Their placards were simple, made from flattened cardboard boxes, held an arm’s length high or simply tied around their bodies with string. But their language was incendiary: “Black Power, We Want Vorster Soon,” “Voster (sic) and Kruger must go to Hell,” “Black Power, Free Mandela.” Later they would rip chalkboards off school walls. They cut along three sides of the canvas bags, bags in which their mothers carried mieliemeel (corn flour) into the township, and wrote on the inside. One read, “We are being fed the crumbs of ignorance with Afrikaans as a dangerous spoon.” Others read, “Away with Afrikaans,” “We do not want Afrikaans in Azania,” and “Afrikaans is a language of the oppressors.”

Crowd and police confrontation, Alexandra. June 1976. Source: SAB K345

The story of the events that followed remains “beyond the reach of that kind of morality that normally distinguishes truth from lie.” Although the versions of this story are so numerous and so varied that they give the illusion of detail and accuracy, they become impossible here to parse out and it will forever remain difficult, perhaps impossible, to re-collect “what really happened.”

Perhaps the most descriptive and harrowing account of the confrontation, at least from the point of view of the police, was that of Sergeant Marthinus Johannes Hattingh. From his vantage point in Khumalo Street he watched the children (kinders) milling about among the houses for about thirty minutes. He heard the children screaming, but could not understand what they were saying. They moved back to the school grounds of Orlando West High School, and the police followed them into Vilakazi Street. Slowly the crowd (skare) moved toward them. Lieutenant Colonel Kleingeld gave orders to get dogs and himself took up a position at the front of the police contingent:

Die skare het geskreeu en plakate gehad en sekeres het rondgespring en gedans. Al die tyd besig om nader te beweeg. Vanaf hierdie distansie het die skare begin om klippe en bakstene na ons te gooi… Daar was so ‘n oorverdowende lawaai…
The crowds screamed and had placards and some jumped around and danced. All the time moving closer. From this distance the crowd started throwing stones and bricks at us… There was such a deafening noise…

A Black police officer stepped up next to Kleingeld, and Hattingh saw that they both spoke to the crowds, “albei praat met die skare.” But the air was filled with so much noise that he could not hear what they said. Under the circumstances, it is likely that none of the children heard them either. Murphy Morobe said “there was no visible … there was no clear communication between the police and the students in terms of what in fact they were expecting us to do.”

In the middle of the street leading up to Maponya stores, the police came in the Landrover and blocked the street. But we were prepared to go past the police and stage the march and come back to our school. And the police said ‘No, you people are not going to go past us.’ That is when exactly the trouble started…

Kleingeld gave the order to use tear gas, and several canisters were thrown at the crowd. Tear gas had not been used in the townships for many years, and for the students it was the first of many encounters to come.

And the teargas canister shot going off… For many people it may be teargas—but it could be, it could be real live ammunition going off.

Undoubtedly, many students associated the sounds of shooting with the frightening sensation of the biting tear gas, closely identifying one with the other:

The police, … of course they were throwing us with teargas, teargas, and they started shooting. Not from this group that was in Phefeni. When they came from their various police stations, or from their various directions, they were shooting other students, I don’t know from where. And then they started shooting at us. And then, you know, that was the first time that you would hear the sound of a gun, like, for instance, I wasn’t there when the teargas was shot, was fired at people on Enos’s day. That was the very first time that I could hear the shooting of a teargas, and the gunshot of course. You know, we were … aie … it was so nice of course … [to] run away … but you only feel the pain when they teargas one… Maybe you were, [hesitates] what can I say, to say when the tear-gas was being shot, … burned, … well, it burns in the eyes and in the nose, and all those. (Lilli Mokganyetsi Interview)

Some of the grenades were thrown back at the police; the crowd moved ever nearer and continued to throw stones at the police. Not all of the tear-gas grenades exploded, but it was not clear why not all the grenades worked.

The tear-gas attack failed to disperse the students, and what even the official Cillié Commission called an “inept and ineffective attack” merely stiffened their resolve. The students moved forward. But the police tried one more thing. When the students were about 30 meters away, Colonel Kleingeld gave the command to storm the crowd with the dogs in the front.

With the lucidity that fear can impart, Hattingh described the details of what he saw:

Ek het toe gevind dat patrolliehond CHEROKEE dood lê in die straat voor huis nr. 7294, Vilakazistraat. Daar het nog rook uit hom getrek en hy was verbrand. Daar was tekens dat hy doodgekap was. Dit is die hond van Bantoekonstabel Mamihano. I found that patrol dog Cherokee lay dead in the road in front of house no. 7294, Vilakazi Street. Smoke still rose from him and he was burned. There were signs that he had been hacked to death. It was the dog of Bantu Constable Mamihano.

Another police officer had seen what had happened to the dog during that first police charge:

‘n Swart polisiehond het by my verby gesnel en een van die Bantoe seuns oorrompel. Die skare het omgedraai om hul makker te help en die hond met klippe bestook. A black police dog whipped past me and overwhelmed one of the Bantu boys. The crowd turned around to help their friend and pelted the dog with stones.

Justice Mamiane, who was the dog’s handler, feared for his life:

Ek het nou gedink ons gaan dood gegooi word… Ons het almal op die skare afgestorm. My hond was aan ‘n lang tou en ons het gestorm. Ek onthou dat hy ‘n paar mense gebyt het. Hy was toe vêr van my ek sou sê 40 meter. Ek merk toe dat ‘n aantal besig was om hom met stene te kap en met kieries te slaan. Ek het die tou getrek om hom terug te kry, maar van die skare het die tou vasgehou. As gevolg van die storm het die skare terug geval tot die hoek van Moema en Vilakazistrate waar hulle toe weer stelling ingeneem het. Die skare het my hond saamgesleep en aan die brand gesteek. Toe ek my hond sien was hy platgetrap. I now thought we would be stoned to death. We charged the crowd. My dog was on a long leash and we charged the crowd. I remember that he bit a few people. He was then far from me, I would say 40 meters. I realized then that a number were busy hitting him with stones and with knobkieries. I pulled the lead to get him back but some in the crowd held on to the lead. As a result of the charge, the crowds fell back to the corner of Moema and Vilakazi Streets where they then made a stand again. The crowd dragged my dog along and set him on fire. When I saw my dog he had been trampled under foot.

Snarling and biting, the dog caused “a great deal of panic amongst the students. It was either them or the dog at that point in time.” The crowds fell back to the corner of Moema and Vilakazi Streets and, for a moment, the police retreated to their vehicles.

The Shooting

Until then, no one had been hurt. But after about five minutes the children once again surged forward, throwing more stones.

Stones on road. Source: SAB K345, vol. 190

Stones on road.

They hurled, together with the stones, offensive language at the police: “hoerkinders” (whore children), “Vorster pigs,” “wit varke” (white pigs).42 The police again stormed the crowd, and this time stones hailed on them from all sides. They retreated to their vehicles, which were also being hit by stones. The attack had become more fierce, and to Sergeant Hattingh it was clear that the crowds would overwhelm them.

Ek het gesien dat ‘n Bantoe sersant teen die kop getref word en geweldig bloei aan die regterkant van sy kop. ‘n Klip het my getref teen die regterknie. My been het onder my ingevou en teen die pad neergeval. Ek kon nie op my been staan nie. Met die het ek ‘n bevel gehoor “TREK VUURWAPENS EN VUUR!” Ek het gesien luit.-kol. Kleingeld vuur ‘n sarsie na die regterkant van die skare en ander lede het ook gevuur. Ek self het opgestaan, my vuurwapen getrek.
I saw that a Bantu sergeant was hit against the head and that he bled heavily on the right side of his head. A stone hit me against my right knee. My leg buckled under me and fell down on the road. I could not stand on my leg. With that I heard a command: “DRAW WEAPONS AND SHOOT.” I saw Colonel Kleingeld fire a round at the right-hand side of the crowd and other members [of the police] also fired. I stood up myself, drew my weapon.

Something was about to transform what had been an impassioned and raucous student march into a catastrophe of outrage, panic, and deadly assault.

“At that point … the stone throwing began at the police, and live ammunition was actually used,” according to Morobe. Tema stated, “Then I saw two or three in the front row who had stones and they hurled them at the police”

Then one of the police who was on the extreme right, he was in uniform and it was a White policeman, pulled out a revolver and he pointed it to the students who were more towards the right…

He aimed at the students. At that time Stanley, our driver, screamed and said: Look at him, he is shooting at the kids!

In February 1977, 21-year-old Murphy Morobe testified before the Cillié Commission and told his story of what had happened:

On the 16th June, 1976, I left my home for school at 7 a.m. and got to school at about 8:15 a.m. I was delayed by transport and had my placard with me, with words “Away with Afrikaans”. I had made it on my own. On arrival I found that the students had already left the school premises and I managed to trace them in the direction of Tifile Secondary School. I joined the procession and moved on towards White City and met pupils from neighbouring schools and moved on towards Mavulo, that is on the road to Dube.

We moved past Dube towards Orlando West and there were no incidents nor police interference till we came to Orlando West. Before we reached Orlando West High School we were stopped by Mashinini who informed us that he has got the word that police are in the vicinity and said that there is no turning back, we have just got to go on and there was a roar of approval. The students were singing all along route Nkosi Sikalele Afrika.

The demonstration moved towards Orlando West High School and here there were also other students waiting for our arrival. On joining them I went into Orlando West High School premises to inform the students here that the others were waiting for them. I told the students who were outside the classes to come and join and they did join others. Outside the school premises I was unable to leave through the gate as the teargas had been fired by police before I could get out. The alternative route I could get was to scale the school fence and then join the other students, which I did.

By the time I joined the students, I found them throwing stones at the police outside Orlando West High School and I also joined the students in throwing stones at the police. The police were moving down into the mob and the students then scattered.

Sixteen years later, Morobe, remembered “as the police were moving out of the area, that’s when some of them started shooting directly into the crowd at quite close range, and it’s at that point that Hector Pieterson was shot and killed.” Victor Dladla lived behind the school where the shooting took place. He saw the police twice try to stop the procession but then one policeman “took out his gun and shot a boy who fell.” Dladla remembered he thought immediately that the boy was dead and that it was “at that moment” when “the children spread and picked up stones. They started throwing stones at the police.”

Antoinette Musi had seen the police convoy and hidden in one of the houses nearby. She saw her brother, a thirteen-year-old student at the Ishetsepeng Higher Primary School, emerging from around a corner and called to him. “I then asked him not to go away but stand in front of me,” where she could keep an eye on him. He was there for a short while but then she could not see him anymore.

A tall thin “Bantoeman” holding a brick in his left hand and a “kierie” (club) in the other, rushed at Hattingh. He shot directly at him “om die aanval af te weer” (to defend against the attack). The man fell to the ground.

According to the police, Hastings Ndlovu was an “opstoker” (agitator), armed with a stick and a brick:

Hy het geskree en baie ander het saam gepraat en geskreeu, maar omdat ek nie Bantoetale magtig is nie, kon ek nie verstaan wat gesê word nie.
He shouted and many others shouted and spoke together with him, but because I have no command of African languages, I could not understand what was said.48

What’s this?

Twenty years later, Hasting Ndlovu’s father testified before the Truth Commission:

When I came home in the late afternoon after buying … The World, I realised that one of my sons had been killed. The following day … I went to Baragwaneth. I found my very son, … he had been killed, brought in and when he was taken to the ICU, he died… Went to the mortuary where there were hundreds of bodies strewn all over the place. I have never seen such an incident before. On that day, that is the 17th I could not trace my son.

I came back home. Tried again the Friday, again I failed. Collected the school principal, we went together with a neighbour. Right at the entrance my neighbour said here is this fellow. He was face down, I held him by the ear, turned him over and I said, oh thou fallen piece of earth. Those that have done this deed shall be very sorry. So I realised, yes, it was Hastings Ndlovu, my son, that had died…

We say, bravo to those kids. We hope the organisers of this June 16 should really carry on with this lest the future generations forget.

Hattingh shot five more times “na die bene van die aanstormende skare” (at the legs of the onrushing crowds), but he did not see anyone else fall. The command came to withdraw to an open space where there were fewer houses. The children had retreated completely and the order was given to take the vehicles out of the area. Hattingh’s lack of foresight betrayed him: He had left the keys to his vangwa (a small van commonly used to transport arrested suspects) in the ignition, and they and a wallet and pen had been removed.

House on Vilakazi Street

Hattingh rolled his van down the hill and left into Moema Street, where it came to a standstill in front of house No. 7334. A new group immediately fell upon him from all sides and bombarded his car with stones. The windows as well as the metalwork were damaged. Someone tried to pull him from the vehicle, grabbing his cap and tearing off his rank insignia. Another person struck him across his right hand with a sharp object, cutting his middle and index fingers. Stones hit him in the car and someone tried to take his gun away from him. In response to his calls for help on the two-way radio, several police cars appeared out of the direction of Khumalo Street. The attack stopped. He noticed that there were three “Bantoekonstabel,” whom he did not know in the back of the van. When he opened the back for them, he could smell “parafin,” a commonly used lamp oil, in the back. The three constables “het uitmekaar gehardloop en [ek het hulle] nog nie weer gesien nie” (ran in different directions and I did not see them again). After hot-wiring the van, Hattingh returned to the Orlando police station alone. He was suffering from shock.

Back in front of the school, Antoinette Musi was searching for her brother but could not find him:

I stood there amazed. Thereafter I saw a group of young boys coming along. It was then that I realised that Hector was being carried by these boys.

Sign for clinic

Mbuyisa Makhubu, a tall boy wearing a “tattered, sullied overall,” carried the boy in his arms. He wanted to go to the Phefeni Clinic nearby, but Sophie Tema, the reporter from the Rand Daily Mail, stopped them and urged the driver of her Volkswagen Beetle to take the child to the hospital. Their faces mirrored the anguish of the moment.

Hector Pieterson in the arms of Mbuyisa Nkita Makhubu, his sister, Antoinette Musi, running alongside.

[W]e saw a boy who had an overall on, carrying another boy in his arms and a girl next to him. She was crying, weeping, and they were coming towards us.

She asked Stanley to stop the car and ordered the little group into it to rush the child to hospital. She herself “followed them on foot to the clinic, which was not very far.” But when she got there, the doctors who had tried to examine the boy “told us that he was dead already”:

The little girl … was present, she was crying… [T]he boy who was carrying this other one, he said in Zulu that this boy is already dead and this girl kept on calling his name, she kept on calling him, Zolile, Zolile, as she was crying and weeping.

Antoinette Musi called her brother by his name, but he did not answer. He was wounded and blood was “coming out through the mouth and blood [was] on the neck.” At Baragwanath Hospital two doctors met them and carried Hector into the clinic. Musi stood outside:

There came a nurse who called me and directed me where to go. That is where I found the doctor inside. He asked me the name of Hector and told me that I will be a witness… I heard the doctor while I was still there, mention the word “mortuary” and I realised then that he [Hector] had passed away.


It was as if, barely buried under the dust of the streets, a network of incendiary fuses carried the terrible knowledge everywhere in Soweto: “a White man … [h]ad killed a child, a Black child.”

Back at the offices of the West Rand Administration Board in Mphuthi Street, Dr. Edelstein, senior official in charge of welfare, returned with the windscreen of his car smashed, desperately concerned to let the staff there know that there was trouble and that they should leave the office immediately.

He came in running, and he just thumbed his right hand, and uttered something, my Lord! which I have not forgotten, he just said [to Mr Hobkirk], “I told them that it was going to happen.” Then he came into our office and repeated the same words, “I told them that it was going to happen.”

The children were coming back up from Mofolo. Their number had increased tremendously and “there was a change in their mood… They were aggressive.” They came up the road chanting and stoned the office and set two cars alight. The staff locked themselves into an office, and Dr. Edelstein hid under a desk, “so that the children shouldn’t see him.” A window broke under the onslaught of the stones:

Then the children saw me… they asked me where was the White man. I said “no he’s left.” … They pulled me out through the window, that they had smashed. They asked me where the White man was. They were referring to Mr Hobkirk. Mr Hobkirk, his duty is to give the youth work-seekers permits, there are times when he doesn’t give to them, indicating that they are lazy, they don’t want to go and work, so now the youth always have a grudge against such people. They wanted to kill the White man.

It was clear that the children were after Hobkirk specifically, for they shouted that “Mrs. Jacques [another staff member] should not be killed as [she was] the Welfare Worker.” Tlotleng was sure that the children knew nothing about Dr. Edelstein, but the children started demolishing the building:

[P]ulling out the cabinets, there was such a great deal of noise that … he panicked and dashed out of the building. I just heard the children saying “here is the White man”, then they started assaulting him and throwing him with stones—they didn’t recognise him. He ran towards the tennis courts. There are some tennis courts not far away. That was the last time that I saw him, running towards the tennis courts. And at that stage the children were still assaulting him and throwing him with stones.

Back at the building, the children had managed to break down the locked door and started pulling out the filing cabinets and the benches before setting everything alight. Some of the children asked Tlotleng why he was still standing there, whether he was not afraid that they would assault him because he worked for the Bantu Administration. He left and, being worried about what might happen to the rest of the staff, at first sought refuge with some workers who had hidden in a house nearby. Later he made his way home past the burning Bantu Administration building at Dube, past a number of children who had looted the bottle store at Moroka and were “running around with all the liquor that they had looted.”

Bottle store, Moroka. June 1976. Source: SAB K345

After the shots were fired, things got more chaotic and students began to attack many different targets:

At that time a Gilbey’s truck passed, carrying some liquor and it was stopped by the students and they removed the liquor that was in it.
van Graan:
What did they do with the liquor?
I would say they drank the liquor because many people were drunk that day during the day during the day.
van Graan:
Who instructed them to stop the truck?
By that time, I would like to draw your attention that by that time we did not have a leader by that time, we were just fleeing from the police. Now anything the people came across, they just met it, as we damaged the office, as stoned the office. Now the Gilbey’s truck was just stopped by students. I would not say who was who because we were just fleeing as we would now meet, not specifically students from Naledi or students from Morris.
van Graan:
Who told you to stop the motor cars and force the drivers to give the Black Power salute?
By that time the situation was different in Soweto, because we saw some motorists and the only thing, when we … (inaudible) … just power. We just shouted it, “power, power, power,” and all that. Now that thing, I stopped the vehicles and forced the people to say “power” as I was saying “power” too.
van Graan:
So it was never discussed beforehand to stop the vehicles in that manner?

Burnt-out Cars on Street in Front of Uncle Tom’s Hall. Source: SAB K345

Uncle Tom’s Hall truck, burnt-out and flipped. Source: SAB K345

Rudolf Mandla Matimba, 25, was a teacher at Selelekela School, teaching mathematics, general science, and agriculture. He had become involved in the student movement in 1974, although he was not invited to the student meeting on Sunday, June 13, at which the Afrikaans issue was discussed and plans were made for the march that week. On the morning of June 16, the principal at his school had dismissed the students at 10:30 a.m., although he had earlier denied them permission to take part in the demonstrations. Matimba stayed at the school until 2 p.m. and then spent the afternoon with his girlfriend, a nurse at Baragwanath Hospital.

I stayed there until about 6:30 p.m. that day. On my way home I came across Tebello Motapanyane at the A1 Dry Cleaners in Orlando West. At that stage I already noticed that there were disturbances in Soweto. The traffic was moving very slowly, being stopped by tsotsis and elderly people. There were also cars nearby burning. There was a group of about 1090 people singing. I asked Tebello what happened during the day. He told me that the students had clashed with the police; that a lot of people had died during the day. He said that they were shot by the police. He said further that he was there when the bottle store was broken into. It is the Phefeni bottle store. We went nearer to the bottle store and noticed several people looting the place. He also told me how they took cool drinks and bread from various trucks. I then joined the group that was singing. I later decided to go home. On my way I saw several people pushing a Combi out of the road. It was blocking the traffic. I helped. We pushed the Combi onto the railway line site but not onto the tracks. It did not overturn. After this I went to my house which was about 600 metres from there.

Rail crossing, Maponya. Source: SAB K345

Overturned VW kombi, Maponya. Source: SAB K345

Murphy Morobe also described the changing mood.

The police then moved in the direction of Orlando East and parked at the open veld off the spruit. In Orlando West the stoning continued now on every delivery van or truck that the students came across. It was now a real fight against the vehicles and in one instance I was far away when I saw a green car with white persons being stoned. I did not see the end of this car and its occupants.

Sylvia Allison Carruthers and three of her white women friends were in Soweto that morning to deliver fresh vegetables to several crèches (nursery schools or kindergartens). At one of them they found that the spirit of the uprising had touched even the children there:

[T]here were the cutest little tables and chairs, just the right sizes obviously for tinies and an interesting array of towels, blankets, overalls and so on, each marked with a symbol of some kind such as a jug or a ball or a teddy-bear so that the children could identify their particular belongings, all supplied by the crèche of course. It was all most interesting and rewarding. The babies were a happy lot and much loved and cared for children… Behind the … crèche at about half past ten, dozens of teenagers began to pour from a building which I assume was a school. Jenny and I were in the garden of the crèche looking at the various equipment and when they saw us, several of the youngsters gave us the Black Power salute, that is the clenched right fist. This was done to the accompaniment of broad grins and seemed very good-natured. The crowd of teenagers seemed most cheerful and happy.

At about a quarter to eleven the four women decided to return to Johannesburg, still unaware of any threat or that anything more than “very large numbers of schoolchildren” were about in Soweto that day. They lingered for a while over a cup of coffee, enthralled by the quaintness of it all:

And it was quite beautiful. These gorgeous little tots who were all under six years old, sang at the top of their voices in Zulu with all the appropriate actions, that is arms aloft and bosoms clutched and feet stamped as children love to do. When their teacher stopped singing, the children carried on quite spontaneously with another song on their own; it was most enjoyable.

Boys with fists raised, Soweto. June 1976. Source: SAB K345

But in Khumalo Street, near the Orlando West High School, they found themselves surrounded by a crowd of angry youths, “a slowly moving horde of Africans,” who “peered into the windows, some still with grins and Black Power salutes”:

I even heard a couple of wolf whistles and at my age you notice wolf whistles. Suddenly a Bantu girl or woman, I cannot say which as she was so close to my window, all I could see of her was an enormous bosom, screamed something in an African language at the top of her voice and then thumped with both fists on the roof of the car. This was the signal for dozens of others to do the same and the noise inside the car was quite something.

Car with broken windshield, 16 June 1976, Orlando Station. Source: SAB K345

The windows of the car were smashed and all four women inside injured in one way or another. On the side of the car closest to Carruthers a “man” stood holding a large rock in his hand. The rock was so big that it hid his hand.

My immediate thought was dear God, if he throws that we are dead because they will all stone us and then I watched him hurl it at us and within seconds our car was being battered by dozens of rocks, most of them very large. I was screaming at the top of my lungs after being struck by one of the rocks on the back of my head and feeling the warm blood run down my back. My back and my head were being hit by rock after rock… We were all quite sure we were going to die.

Although their attackers rocked the car and tried to lift it, and despite a broken hand, the driver, a Mrs. Kent, continued slowly on, careful not to hurt any of the children and anger them further by moving too fast. Finally, the car broke free of the crowd, and from Orlando Bridge they were escorted to the police station and on to hospital:

I was frankly terrified and started to shout: “I am English, I am English!” to my everlasting shame. What I expected them to do because I am English I really cannot tell you. I can only say that until anyone is as frightened as I was at that moment, they cannot know what their reactions would be. I always thought I would be so brave. (See Carruthers testimony)

Outraged by the lack of response to her ordeal and the short shrift their story was given in the newspaper and unaware of the absurdity of her perspective, Carruthers declared that “50 years, 100 years ago, if an English woman had been attacked in an African township, they would have sent a gunboat.” Somewhere in Soweto “the people … laughed and laughed in the bitterness of the day.”

Street corner, Phomolong Clinic

Street corner, Phomolong Clinic

Sign for Phomolong Clinic

Just before eleven o’clock a West Rand Bantu Administration Board official, J. H. B. Esterhuizen, drove along Khumalo Street straight into a group of students near the Phomolong Clinic. When he left his car he was surrounded by youths and beaten to death in an alley opposite the clinic. Although marks on his clothing and body gave the appearance that the students had tried to burn his body, it is possible that ashes clung to him from attempts that had been made to stuff it into a garbage can.

And then, from there, a certain man … [hesitates] … I wonder who was that man … who we throwed with stones, he was driving a car, of course, he was a white man. We throwed him with stones, because he was forcing to move within the mob, because even other motorists, when they came, when they came our direction and find out there is a mob, they would rather turn, or try to take another direction. So this man forced his way through our … through us. And then, we tried to chase him, go back, go back, go back. He insisted, and he suddenly took out the shotgun, and then when he was just about to fire one, or whether he fired one, I can’t say… We started throwing stones, we started hitting him with stones, until he died, and we took a dust bin, of course, they put him inside that dust bin…

The crumpled body lay on a sidewalk, the head in the road. But for the heavy stones all around and the odd angle at which his arm and hand were folded back up under the body the man might have been asleep.75 The body could be removed only about four hours later.

Death was not new to Soweto and the nights were filled with the terror of a tsotsi‘s flick knife and the threat of a robber’s flaring anger. When Derrick Thema, a black journalist, was jerked from sleep to go to where his brother lay “dead with deep panga gashes in his body,” he thought of all the bodies that were discovered in the mornings and told himself “silently there was nothing spectacular about my brother’s death… Death hangs around everyone’s neck.” 77 But this was different.

Dead woman with police officer, Alexandra. June 1976. Source: SAB K345

Man dead amongst rubble, Alexandra. June 1976. Source: SAB K345

Man dead in courtyard with police and African onlookers, Alexandra. June 1976. Source: SAB K345

By two in the afternoon police station commanders from Soweto were reporting that matters had gotten out of hand and that they did not have the manpower to handle it. Surveying the area from a helicopter later that afternoon, Brigadier S. W. Le Roux reported large groups standing around, blocking cars, and pelting the cars with stones and lighting them on fire.

Burning truck, Alexandra. June 1976. Source: SAB K345

Buildings everywhere burned and “you could see flames blowing from somewhere… I tell you that it wasn’t from our own mob only, because Soweto is a very big township… Smoke started billowing.” Thick black smoke and flames poured from the open door of the driving compartment of a white kwela-kwela van precariously abandoned on the curb of a township road, as schoolchildren watched from among the houses and atop a stony hill nearby.

Truck burning with crowd, Alexandra. June 1976. Source: SAB K345

Aerial view: building, Soweto. June 1976. Source: SAB K345

Aerial view: truck, Soweto. June 1976. Source: SAB K345

Beer halls and bottle stores (liquor stores) were among the prime targets of the uprising.

Destroyed bottle store, Alexandra. June 1976. Source: SAB K345

Altogether 114 beer halls and 74 bottle stores, all properties of the Bantu Administration Board, were destroyed or damaged by fire. A worker talked to a groups of boys he thought were students. He asked them why bottle stores and beer halls were burned and “one said that their parents (male) had no time to listen to their school problems, or finance them wholeheartedly for their schooling because they spend most of their time and money on drinks.”

At 7 p.m. at the Meadowlands hostel compound, Lieutenant Colonel J. C. Le Roux, in charge of 74 police officers, confronted a large number of people who were coming out of a bottle store and carrying boxes of beer and bantoebier (sorghum beer). Six shops, a beer hall, and the bottle store itself were burning. Die skare was oënskynlik besope en geweldig lawaaierig” (the crowds were apparently drunk and dreadfully noisy).

Graffiti on beerhall in Meadowlands: “Power.” Source: SAB K345 Exhibit 328

Hostel, partially collapsed roof with 3 fir trees in the background, Meadowlands. Source: SAB K345, vol. 326

Hostel, severely damaged, Meadowlands. Source: SAB K345, vol. 326

Beer hall burnt-out, Meadowlands. Source: SAB K345, vol. 326

By nightfall many of the roads in Soweto were blocked with burning vehicles, and a police car going from Moroka to Jabulani was pelted with stones near Rockville, its windscreen shattered.

The composition of the crowd had changed perceptibly:

[F]rom the time I got off from the train at Phefeni Station, there were already some people standing there, but I could not recognize any students which I know. Most of them were elderly people and mostly just tsotsis because they were wielding knives and kieries and stopping people, you know, saying that they must lift up their arms in the Black Power salute and you find that sometimes when people did that, they ripped off their watches from their hands an they stoned the cars. But I definitely did not see any students at that time.

Tsotsis joined the crowds, following their own agendas:

The first time I observed tsotsis when we were—when I was already up in White City, that was the first time I observed tsotsis that they were amongst us. When we were standing there, we were forcing people to make clenched fists who were from work in cars. Now it was when I observed a tsotsi, one boy was trying to take out a watch from somebody who said “power, power,” and this one somebody, as he did it, he tried to pull out the watch. That is when I observed that there were tsotsis.


I think it was after two or round about two or three.

The Director of the South African Council on Alcoholism wrote in a memorandum to the Cillié Commission in October 1976:

Die portuurgroep (peer group) oefen sterk druk uit onder jong Bantoe seuns en dogters vanweë die afwesigheid van ouerlike toesig en so word die TSOTSI-BENDE groep gevorm wat alkoholmisbruik as een van sy sterk statusnorms het. Dit wil voorkom asof hierdie tsotsi-bendes met die afbrand van drankwinkels soveel drank buitgemaak en verober het dat dit hul verantwoordelikheidsgrense (inhibisies) totaal verwyder het, sodat geweld, anargie en chaos verder hoogty gevier het. Hul waaghalsigheidsgrense is hemelhoog opgeskuif sodat grootskaalse brandstigting na verhoogde alkoholkonsumpsie geïntensiveer is en voortgewoeker het.
The peer group has strong influence among young Bantu girls and boys because of the absence of parental attention, and so the TSOTSI-GANG group is formed in which alcohol misuse is a strong status norm. It seems that these tsotsi gangs carried off and seized so much alcohol with the burning of the liquor stores that their boundaries of responsibility (inhibitions) were totally taken away, so that violence, anarchy, and chaos reigned supreme. Their recklessness levels rose sky-high so that large scale arson after elevated alcohol consumption intensified and spread

Buildings burned everywhere. Brigadier Schalk Willem Le Roux later stated:

(1) Dat die oproeriges almal die Swartmag teken gee en as dit nie beantwoord word nie van voertuie nie dan word daardie voertuig met klippe bestook en soms aan die brand gesteek. (2) Dat die oproeriges hulle veral toespits het op W.R.A. geboue; asook ander geboue wat deur Blankes beheer word. (3) Die woorde Black Power was veral baie uit geroep gewees. (4) Ek het ook die woorde BOER SE MOER gehoor, veral as daar ‘n groep oproeriges bymekaar gestaan het en die Polisie verby gegaan het. (5) Die oproeriges het sonder enige redes klippe gegooi, paaie versper met ou wrakke, klippe en enige ander voorwerp wat hulle in die hande kon gekry het.
(1) That the rioters all gave the Black Power sign and when it was not answered then that car would be pelted with stones and sometimes be set on fire. (2) That the rioters concentrated on W.R.A. buildings; as well as on other buildings controlled by whites. (3) Especially the words Black Power were shouted a lot. (4) I also heard the words BOER SE MOER, especially when there was a group of rioters standing around together and the police went by. (5) Without any provocation, the rioters threw stones, blocked roads with old [car] wrecks, stones and any other object that they could lay their hands on.

Fires in the streets lit the night sky over Soweto red, as if mocking the tragedies of the day in a sad travesty of the fiery celebrations of New Year’s Eve or other township revelries. To an outsider the randomly laid-out and poorly lit streets must have been a mystery, and a daunting one at that. Out of the dark, stones were thrown at patrolling police units. The matchbox houses were set among rocks and debris. Potholes, “as deep a children’s swimming pools,” made the streets treacherous. Puddles of stagnant water and piles of disintegrating rubbish filled the air with evil smells and attracted the half-starved mongrels that stalked the darkness:

WRAB smoke and tree, White City. June 1976. Source: SAB K345

WRAB burning building, White City. June 1976. Source: SAB K34

Soweto looked like a festival. Many young chaps were roaming the streets shouting “Black Power.” Drinks were flowing like water. There [sic] had changed faces. There were no students them [sic], but young hoodlums.

Destroyed bus in back of Phefeni bottle store, completely burnt-out and missing rear tires. Source: SAB K345, vol. 326

In front of the Caroline Mvuzi preschool at eleven o’clock that night, Constable Pieter Cox and Lieutenant Smit noticed a Putco bus that had clearly been hijacked. Its windows were broken and the black passengers hanging out of them raised their clenched fists and shouted “Black Power” at them. When they managed to stop the bus, everyone ran away and Lieutenant Smit ran after the driver, who was the last to get out of the bus and jumped a fence to get away. In the dark, Smit stumbled and fell over the same fence and Cox shot the fleeing figure.

Toe luit. Smit val het ek die Bantoe geskiet. Daar was geen ander manier om die Bantoe te keer nie en as ek nie geskiet het nie sou hy weggehardloop het, in die donker tussen die huise… Ek het slegs een skoot geskiet. Ek het die Bantoe ingehaal en gevind dat hy ‘n gat in sy bors het.
When Lieut. Smit fell, I shot the Bantu. There was no other way to stop the Bantu and if I had not shot, he would have run away, in the dark between the houses… I only shot one time. I caught up with the Bantu and found that he had a hole in his chest.


That evening workers began returning home. Hundreds of thousands arrived by train and bus and at once found themselves in the thick of the uprising. A black social worker, having spent most of the afternoon pleading with students not to harm the white social-work student who had been with her in Soweto that day working on juvenile cases, finally saw her safely to the Orlando police station. As she left the station to go home she met people returning from Johannesburg:

They looked amazed as they saw a convoy of police cars and hippos and police in camouflage uniforms. To me they appeared amazed and ignorant of what was happening and at the same time frightened of the “soldiers” … that is the police in camouflage uniforms. On the other hand children who were no longer in school uniform, though some were still in it, appeared to be enjoying the sight of a helicopter threatening to land just above their heads.

The fury and the pain of the parents who returned home that evening was great. “Those people whose children had been shot in Soweto—they now want to die,” a motor mechanic remembered. “Imagine how they felt coming home from work. Their children were killed for no reason.” A new and powerful force had now joined the embattled schoolchildren. “Earlier in the evening adults returning from work took over the barricades and general lawlessness took hold for a time.”

Ntsiye April Mahasha’s son, Daniel, was shot by the railway police at Merafe station on Thursday, June 17, possibly while he was playing soccer with his friend Pitso. The evening before, his father had seen Daniel among other schoolchildren and “jong mense” (young people) who had been running up and down the streets, thrusting their right-hand fist into the air and screaming “Power, Power.” The father remained uninvolved:

Ek het niks verder gehoor nie en my seun het ook nie gesê waarom hulle so maak nie en ek het nie verder gevraa nie en gaan slaap.
I didn’t hear anything further and my son also did not say why they were doing this, nor did I ask further and went to bed.

There is pathos in the father’s description of his son, who “was 15 jaar oud, skolier by Moletsani Bantoeskool en het by my ingewoon … was gesond en sterk en sover ek weet het hy nooit gedrink nie” (was 15 years old, a student of Moletsani Bantuschool and lived with me… He was healthy and strong and as far as I know he never drank).

It seemed it had been a long time since parents had listened to their children.

I used to say to my mother and father: “Do you know what discrimination means? Do you know what it does to people? It kills them very slowly.” They would tell me to hush, and look at me as though I was saying something that was very bad, very evil. “You are getting a good education,” they would say. “Why do you want to destroy what we have done for you?” I could not give them an answer.

Until the children took action, many parents despaired.

We stood on the sidelines, arms folded. Sometimes we were swept by the waves of moments of crisis. Now the children cried “Enough!” So, we have begun to see alternatives; we’ve begun to echo the cries uttered in the middle of the street, at street corners, in church buildings, at night-vigils and in the toilets of school buildings. Something definitive, something positive rings in the shrill voices we raise when we speak.

Even the parents, who, according to Captain Hendrik Jurgens Greyffenberg, pulled their children out of demonstrating groups and beat them, may have acted out of fear for their lives at the hands of the police more than condemnation.

Baie van die kinders se ouers het opgedaag en hulle kinders uit die groep gehaal en slae gegee. Ongeveer 15h00 dieselfde dag het ons ook by die Gordon Laërskool te 6de laan waar kinders besig was om versperrings oor die strate te pak ouers aangetref wat self hulle kinders gevang en geslaan het.
Many of the children’s parents showed up and took their children out of the group and gave them hidings. At about 3 p.m. that same day at the Gordon primary school in 6th Avenue where children were busy setting up roadblocks across the streets, we encountered parents who themselves caught their children and hit them.

Parents were worried and afraid:

They didn’t want me to go with the crowds, because they said they didn’t want me to die. They tried to stop me, but each time I slipped out. I would climb the fence at the back of our house.

To the police, the schoolchildren’s challenge of parental authority came as a shock. They were eager for any sign that parents had once again taken control of the younger generation. By August 28, 1976, Colonel T. J. Swanepoel, a colonel of the South African Police in Hillbrow, had reported:

Die werkerselement en ander wetsgehoorsame inwoners van Alexandra het nou sterk na vore getree en die oproermakers word op die oog af deeglik aan bande gelê deur die inwoners self. ‘n Ander opvallende kenmerk is dat die leeglêer en tsotsi elemente en waarskynlik ook die leierskorps van die oproermakers se getalle opmerklik in Alexandra verminder het. Dit wil voorkom of die ouers nou weer volle beheer oor hulle kinders het en nie toelaat dat hulle kinders vir hulle voorskryf wat om te doen nie. ‘n Voorbeeld wat hierdie mening onderskryf, is gevind op 23 en 24/8/1976 waar daar ooglopend pogings aangewend was om werkers so te intimideer dat hulle op genoemde twee datums nie moes gaan werk nie. Dit was op die oggende van 23 en 24/8/1976 gevind dat die werkers van Alexandra op volle sterkte gaan werk het. Putco busse het ongehinderd en normaal geloop in Alexandra. ‘n Ander opvallende kenmerk was dat kinders en die leeglêer element glad nie toegelaat was om op straat te verskyn voor ongeveer 07h30, toe van die kinders opgemerk is wat op pad skool toe was. [Emphasis added.]
The worker component and other law-abiding residents of Alexandra now stepped forward strongly and on the face of it the rioters were thoroughly kept in check by the residents themselves. Another remarkable characteristic was that the numbers of delinquents and the tsotsi element and probably also the leadership group of the rioters noticeably declined in Alexandra. It seems as if the parents now again had full control over their children and did not allow them to prescribe to them what to do. An example that underwrites this opinion was found on the 23rd and 24th August 1976 when obvious attempts were made to intimidate workers so that they would not go to work on those two date. It was found on the morning of the 23rd and 24th August 1976 that the workers of Alexandra were going to work in full force. Putco busses were running unhindered and normally in Alexandra. Another noticeable characteristic was that children and the delinquent element were not permitted to appear on the road at all before about 7:30 am, at which time some children were noticed who were on the way to school. [Emphasis added.]


Over the next two days the chaos deepened and the stories took on an almost surreal quality. Peter Magubane, a photographer working for the Rand Daily Mail,was on his way to work on the morning of June 18 when he drove through the Diepkloof intersection. A crowd had gathered around a dead body, another victim of the night. “The whole intersection was littered with bottles and burnt out chairs from the bar at the beerhall.”

In the midst of the apprehension and fright that gripped Soweto, rumors spread like wildfire, often about police brutality or students being intimidated into taking part in marches and further boycotts. At the core of many of these rumors was often more than a kernel of truth. Matthew Boyi Manyana, a reporter for the Rand Daily Mail, was working with Zwelake Sisulu in Soweto the night of the 17th. They had parked their car almost directly opposite the police station. As the night wore on, a group of about twenty youths were led into the charge office:

At one stage those who had not been severely injured, were forced to run, literally run as they walked, as they moved in pairs into the charge office… They looked scared at the time. They were running into the charge office… It would have been about 9:30, 10 o’clock at night. They were running in pairs. The police kept assaulting them with batons… About six to eight policemen… Africans and Whites… After some time the same group of youths were taken out of the charge office and led to an open ground nearby where next to which about eight corpses were lying uncovered.

The police, mostly black officers, forced them to hop for about twenty minutes and assaulted them by “beating them up with batons and rubber hoses almost indiscriminately about the body.” There was a lot of noise throughout the time they were there, Manyana and Sisulu heard people “screaming in the charge office” and they overheard someone say, “Ja, moer hom, moer hom” (Yes, murder him, murder him). After a while the youths were ordered back out of the charge office to load the corpses into a waiting mortuary van:

While the bodies were being loaded, the mortuary van driver kept kicking the youths. There were 4 youths to one body. Two would carry the corpse from the front and others holding—and two others holding the legs and they literally dumped each body into the mortuary van. The attendant who was the driver, who was wearing a white dustcoat, would punch these youths and kick them. The whole experience was quite frightening to me.

Some of these accounts were deeply sinister: Constable Abraham Johannes Burger, on patrol in Soweto on June 17, reported finding the partially burnt body of a 16-year-old boy lying next to the burnt-out wreckage of a Volkswagen van. Near the Meadowlands police station he encountered a man whose ears had been cut off. The next day, behind the Meadowlands post office, he was directed to the body of a young African woman, lying up against a fence:

[D]ie liggaam was gedeeltelik nakend, die privaatdeel was verbrand en ‘n stukwond op die voorhoof tussen die oë asook steekwonde aan haar borste en skouers. Ons het die liggaam na Meadowlands polisiestasie geneem en daar gelaat. Terwyl die liggaam in ons sorg was, was dit nie verder beskadig nie, ons voertuig was ook nie in ‘n ongeluk betrokke terwyl ons die liggaam vervoer het nie. Dit was volgens voorkoms duidelik dat die betrokke bantoevrou op ‘n grusame wyse om die lewe gebring was.
[T]he body was partially naked, her private parts were burned, and [there was] a knife wound between the eyes, as well as knife wounds on her breasts and shoulders. We took the body to Meadowlands police station and left it there. While the body was in our care, it was not further damaged. Our vehicle was also not involved in an accident while we were transporting the body. It was to all appearances clear that the woman concerned had been killed in the most brutal way.

Truck burning with crowd, Alexandra. June 1976. Source: SAB K345

Crowd with posters, Alexandra. June 1976. Source: SAB K345

Anxious Alexandra crowd, Alexandra. June 1976. Source: SAB K345

WRAB office outside, Katlehong. June to September 1976. Source: SAB K345

Offices interior after fire, Katlehong. June to September 1976. Source: SAB K345

It was during the morning of Thursday, June 17, that the uprising spread to Alexandra, a township immediately north of Johannesburg, to Vosloorus and Katlehong in the East Rand, on the West Rand to Mohlakeng and Randfontein, and to the University of Zululand and the University of the North in Pietersburg. White students as the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg protested the Soweto shootings. Everywhere, demonstrators, students, and people on the streets expressed solidarity with the schoolchildren of Soweto, explicitly tying their own demonstrations and battles with the police to the activities in Soweto. The tone of the uprising changed, as did the expressions and targets of protest.

Looted store, Alexandra. June 1976. Source: SAB K345

Destroyed school, Alexandra. June 1976. Source: SAB K345

Burning police vehicle in Mafeking. Source: SAB K345, vol. 190

Students of the University of the North gathering on the football field of the campus. Source: SAB K345, vol. 190

Part of the student march, University of the North. Source: SAB K345, vol. 190

Burning building, with school busses and person in foreground, Mabopane. Source: SAB K345, vol. 190

Defying predictions of how quickly the unrest would be brought under control, it gathered momentum. One night in August, police came upon eighty “oproermakers” (rioters), on the corner of 11th Avenue and Selbourne Street in Alexandra, who were stopping homeward-bound workers, taking and burning their passbooks, and intimidating them. The rioters had also set up a roadblock on Selbournestreet. By this time the police had already been issued “No. 9 fyn hael, ook bekend as donshael” (No. 9 fine shot, also known as fluffy shot) to shoot protestors, and they used it on this occasion to disperse the crowd:

Roadblocks, Alexandra. June 1976. Source: SAB K345

Workers, Alexandra. June 1976. Source: SAB K345

Die rede vir hierdie opdrag was dat traanrook slegs ‘n baie beperkte uitwerking op die oproermakers in die buitelug gehad het en dat die onskuldige werkers asook lede van die publiek baie meer daronder gely het as die oproermakers self. Die oproermakers het later so gewoon geraak om die traanrook te ontwyk, dat hulle slegs na link of regs of voor die traanrook uit beweeg het. Om aan te toon hoe doelgerig die poging was wat aangewend was om die gebruik van traanrook te laat slaag, was daar reeds op hierdie tydstip 979 traanrookgranate en traanrookpatrone afgevuur op die oproermakers. Dosyne knuppel stormlope was toe reeds uitgevoer, sonder dat dit enige skynbare blywende uitwerking op die oproermakers gehad het. ‘n Hele aantal knuppels was toe alreeds stukkend geslaan op die oproermakers.
The reason for this order was that teargas only had a very limited effect on the rioters in the open air and that innocent workers as well as members of the public suffered much more under it than the rioters themselves. The rioters later got so used to dodging the teargas, that they simply moved to the left or to the right or out of reach of the teargas. To show how purposeful the attempt was to make the use of teargas effective, by this time already 979 teargas grenades and teargas shells had been shot at the rioters. Dozens of baton assaults had already been made, without that having any apparent lasting effect on the rioters. A whole number of batons had by then already been broken on the heads of rioters.109

It was already dark, so five times 500 flares were shot off to brighten the scene. Despite the blasts from the shotgun, no wounded persons were found, but police confiscated 40 half-burnt passbooks that “vermoedelik deur die oproermakers van die werkers geroof was en aan die brand gesteek is” (were presumably stolen from the workers by the rioters and burnt). T. J. Swanepoel, the South African Police colonel, testified that there were posters all over Alexandra township in August of 1976, but that their emphasis had changed:

Poster: “Black Power, Free Mandela,” Alexandra. June 1976. Source: SAB K345

Was daar plakkate wat spesifiek oor die oorspronklike moeilikheid gegaan het, naamlik die Afrikaans as voertaal? Swanepoel:
Behalwe vir die eerste paar dae, die twee dae wat ek daar was en toe vier of vyf dae wat ek gemis het, het ek dit nooit weer gesien nie. Jacobs:
het nie weer iets spesifieks daaromtrent gesien nie? Swanepoel:
Nooit weer enig—of slagspreuke op mure of plakkate, ek het dit nooit weer gesien nie… [padversperrings] … Op die hoek van 20ste Laan en Rooseveldstraat, Alexandra was byvoorbeeld een waarop die slagspreuk “Vorster se gat, een plus een is twee, Free Mandela” en met swastikas bo en onder geverf. Slagspreuke op die ou bekende kommunistiese patroon waarin geëis word dat die polisie uit ‘n bepaalde onluste-gebied onttrek moet word, sodra hulle die skroef van die oproermakers begin aandraai, het oral in Alexandra begin verskyn. Sommige slagspreuke was op die teerblad van sommige strate geverf en ander op plakkate wat teen pale en geboue vasgemaak is. Hierdie taktiek word telkens in nie-kommunistiese lande gebruik. Die eis is dan ook gewoonlik: onttrek die polisie en laat die mag in die hande van die massa.
Were there posters that directly addressed the original difficulty, namely Afrikaans as medium of instruction?Swanepoel:
Except for the first few days, the two days I was there and then four or five days that I missed, I never saw it again. Jacobs:
You never again saw anything specifically about that? Swanepoel:
Never again—neither slogans on walls nor posters, I never saw it again… [roadblocks] … On the corner of 20th Avenue and Rooseveld Street, Alexandra, there was one for example on which was painted the slogan “Vorster’s [ass]hole, one plus one is two, Free Mandela” with Swastikas painted above and below. [There were] slogans on the old well known communist pattern in which it was demanded that the police should withdraw out of a given riot area, as soon as they tightened the screws on the rioters, started to appear everywhere in Alexandra. Some of the slogans were painted on the counterfoil of some streets and others on posters that were fastened to poles and buildings. This tactic is used all the times in non-communist countries. The demand is then also usually: withdraw the police and leave the power in the hands of the masses.

Posters, Alexandra. June 1976. Source: SAB K345

Poster: “Black Power, We Want Vorster Soon,” Alexandra. June 1976. Source: SAB K345

Poster: “Warning!!! Don’t go to work,” Alexandra. June 1976. Source: SAB K345

Organizing the route out of South Africa for those sought by the police started almost immediately. Zakes Molotsi remembered:

After that everybody, more our generation, was no longer staying at his parents. We started to move out of our homes, run away, because it was a terror … because they started to pick up and detain everyone, come and search houses looking for what they say [was Black Power].

It was a pattern that repeated itself all over the country as police tried to round up student leaders. Sam Mashaba recalled that he decided, after several confrontations with the police:

I was no more going to go back home because I knew that they were going to follow me at home, they knew my home very well. So I decided that I was going to hide somewhere far away from home. I went to a place about 40 km from home and that was at my brother-in-law’s home, and I hid myself there. Now, some of the students had hidden in different areas, some in the township around Sibasa, some in the villages around.

In the townships, a complicated network of underground communication and transport helped those who wanted or needed to leave. Zakes Molotsi, who was one of the older activists of the uprising and had belonged to an underground ANC cell, described one of the routes out of the country:

Microbusses … we used them during the weekend, because is easy, most people are off work, resting at home, but we used to, we had this trick of using the football team. Go and get a poster, take about … people … so we had a football kits inside, to put off the police. Then when we reach Mafeking, from Mafeking you can’t travel with that big bus towards the border. We started to group them, give them directions, we’d meet the other side of the border. That time, once you reach there, then one would take them to the border on the other side.
At the border you don’t go to the border gate, you just jump the fence. We had continuous … people who go and look at new ways, so that if they discovered this route, the police already know that particular area … then we retreat to another area.

He himself manned the route out of South Africa, going back and forth across the border several times to escort groups of students out of the country. Eventually “they made it impossible for me to return, I was in Botswana then.” The people he had been working had been arrested. “It was difficult for me now to come back, because once one is arrested, you don’t know what happens, given the process of interrogation.” Molotsi feared that those who had been captured in South Africa would give his name away and “it was decided that I should remain” in Botswana. “It was really a very fateful year.”


This chapter has presented the events of June 16, 1976, in Soweto and elsewhere around South Africa from the perspective of witnesses and participants defined in the broadest way so as to include a spectrum of people, including policemen and other government officials; those who, regardless of their color or political convictions, had few sympathies with the students; and others who found themselves protesting the government policies and opposing the police and government. In presenting a multiplicity of voices and sources, this chapter lays the groundwork for the discussion and analysis of these sources, of the many contradictory points of view, of the paradoxical evidence and language, of the targets the students chose to attack, and of the ways the stories of these events were constructed. Faced with a situation completely out of its control, the state simultaneously sent police into the townships to restore order and set to work to explain what had happened and to reassure the white population:

The police tried everything to get the rioters under control, and eventually were forced to fire warning shots over their heads. Police are trying to force the students out of the residential area into an open area and to bring the situation under control.

Functionaries of the state quickly realized that they faced a serious challenge from the African population and that the government needed physically to suppress the protests as quickly as possible and to reestablish ideological order by explaining to itself and to others what had happened. In the process, the government and its various spokesmen created explanatory mechanisms and meanings that have shaped not only its own discourses but those of history. The next chapter will describe and analyze these discursive processes, which are closely linked to the actual physical suppression of the unrest, as well as those of the African National Congress, the most prominent, if banned, liberation movement that spoke on behalf of the African population.

The importance of who was responsible for the first violence cannot be underestimated, both in terms of culpability or justification and for the condemnation or respect of memory. The Cillié Commission Report emphasized that in the evidence there had been “great differences” on the connection between the shooting and the stone throwing: “The two extreme opposites may be stated as follows: The crowd threw stones because the police fired, or the police fired because the crowd threw stones.” How important the causal connection was becomes clearer when one realizes that the Commission concluded that, however justified police action may have been in the face of real or imagined danger, “the police action and the consequent fury and frustration [of the students] were the immediate cause of the acts of violence.” It is all the more disturbing—because of the reassurance that clarity might provide—that the exact sequence of events that followed remains unclear.

Justice Cillié distinguished between Soweto and the rest of the “West Rand,” including the “Black residential areas” or townships of Kagiso, to which news of the uprising in Soweto had spread by the late afternoon of June 16. In Alexandra, young people began putting up barriers in the streets during the afternoon of June 17, and violent confrontations began the morning of June 18. The West Rand also included such white residential areas as Johannesburg, Yeoville, Benrose, Florida, Culembeeck, Roodepoort, and Krugersdorp. In the streets of Johannesburg on June 17, a new group of participants entered the conflict. Two hundred students from the predominantly white University of the Witwatersrand marched through the streets of central Johannesburg to demonstrate “about the fate of Soweto.” Although there was some immediate if haphazard support from the Coloured communities (Lenasia and Noordgesicht near Johannesburg), which gathered momentum in the Coloured communities in the Cape, there would be only one other show of white solidarity across the South African color line. On Friday morning, June 18, in an apparent gesture of solidarity, Black Power slogans were written on the blackboards of classrooms at the Nassau High School in the white residential area of Mowbray, and students of the predominantly white University of Cape Town demonstrated, carrying placards that read “Soweto Bleeds” and “Solidarity with Soweto.”

DMU Timestamp: November 07, 2017 21:11