In commemoration of June 16, 1976, J. BROOKS SPECTOR recalls his own connections with the events of that day and beyond.
The June 16 student uprising was such a turning point in South Africa’s history, few other days can now compare with it. In a way, it became the opening salvo in a sustained push to end decades of apartheid and political oppression. But it came at a great price.
Back in the early 1960s, after the Rivonia Triallists had been arrested, tried and then sentenced to long prison sentences, the ANC’s internal political structures had been ground down to virtually nothing, save for the increasingly fading memories of the defiance campaigns and spirited marches of the 1950s and early ‘60s. And the successes of the ANC’s military wing, MK, had had boiled down to modest pin pricks, largely along the Rhodesian border, as South Africa itself was still protected by a cordon sanitaire of white or colonial rule that extended from Angola to Mozambique, clear across the region. To most, the National Party government’s rule over South Africa seemed almost unstoppable – and unlimited. (Such a seeming victory did, in the end, generate a fatal degree of hubris, of course.)
In April 1976, the government finally decided to enforce existing regulations that would ensure half the education of Africans – notably in tougher, specialised subjects like mathematics and the sciences – would henceforth take place in South Africa’s other official language, Afrikaans, rather than English. Most Soweto headmasters and teachers pledged not to carry out such an arbitrary diktat, even apart from the facts on the ground that there were virtually no such scientific or mathematic, bilingual African teachers available to do this.
Moreover, students generally had so little command of Afrikaans they would be doomed to educational failure, should such a decision become the reality of education in Soweto’s high schools. The imposition of this rule seemed precisely designed to destroy what little education was available under the harsh regimen of “Bantu Education” – thereby dashing any students’ hopes that they could achieve the education needed for success in the modern economy, rather than being condemned to the stoop-back, pick and shovel work apartheid’s masters obviously wanted for them.
Students began to organise their own opposition to this new regimen and scheduled a march to protest against this, heading out of Morris Isaacson and Orlando West High schools. But this peaceful (albeit boisterous) students’ march was met with real police muscle and well over a hundred, perhaps as many as two hundred, students were killed on that day, and many more were wounded.
Instead of the older Charterist ideals of the ANC, students at schools like Morris Isaacson High School had been increasingly affected by a new influence. Black Consciousness had exploded out of the segregated tertiary institutions like the University of the North and the University of Zululand. A growing number of Soweto’s younger, better-educated teachers were sympathetic to that intellectual movement or had been part of or strongly influenced by the concrete political expression of that ideology, the Black People’s Convention movement. They, in turn, inspired their high school charges with the idea that they must take charge of their own destinies and throw off the shackles of the racialised oppression now imposed on them.
As a young diplomat, this writer came into contact with this growing sense of frustration and idealism, right when he first arrived in South Africa in January 1975. Making friends with some of those teachers and school principals, he regularly visited their schools, met their students, and heard the arguments and complaints of teachers and students alike about their circumstances. One of his key tasks was to become attuned and knowledgeable about what was happening in reality in South Africa, rather than just imbibe that Panglossian fantasy put about by government hacks and apparatchiks.
And so, on one day, he had an appointment, set for June 16, to meet a teacher – a science master at one of the high schools – who had recently been on a sponsored, month-long visit to the US. The plan for the meeting was to review the trip to find out how things had gone. Did the visit meet the teacher’s expectations? Where there any difficulties administratively, or in terms of the people he had met, or the places he had wished to visit? This was routine stuff.
But, curiously, a few days before that scheduled meeting, the teacher had called to reschedule the appointment to a day or so earlier. The teacher apologised, but he explained that something else was now likely to come up on that day and he wouldn’t be free to talk over coffee or tea to review his trip. The appointment happened as planned.
Instead of sitting in the staff common room of that Soweto high school, on the evening of 16 June – just as initial censored reports were coming in on the radio and a bit more expansively in late editions of newspapers for sale on street corners (television was barely a presence yet) that Soweto had been the scene of a great march by students. There had been deadly force by police. As a result, the writer found himself at a kitchen table with a young surgeon from Soweto’s Baragwanath Hospital (well before the name Chris Hani had been appended to its entry sign).
As the surgeon slowly sipped a cup of coffee and spoke softly about his day, this doctor demonstrated what could only be described as that “thousand yard stare” – the one where someone is beyond tears from what has been witnessed. It is the face seen on soldiers who have experienced so much combat in such a concentrated time period they can no longer process their memories.
Instead of his usual routines of thoracic surgery and consultations with patients, the doctor had spent his afternoon in what had amounted to a field hospital, as the wounded were wheeled in with their grievous wounds from the police action against the students. Coping with the effects of police gun fire at the backs of the dozens of wounded who were wheeled into his operating theatre – they had been fired upon while fleeing the police line – had not been what he had signed up for in his life. He explained that he couldn’t be sure of the exact number – he had lost count – but there had been hundreds brought into the hospital that day. And he had dealt with so many of them.
Forty years later, it is clear that the Soweto Uprising marked an inflection point in South Africa’s history. By the time the police had restored a semblance of control, it gradually became clear nothing would be “as it was” again. Hundreds of students fled the country and their black consciousness ideology was gradually superseded by the impact of the ANC in exile around Africa and beyond. Others remained inside the country, but increasingly they would become members of the various elements of the UDF: they would call for “liberation before education”, and they would become the foot soldiers and leaders of many other groups dedicated to regime change of apartheid South Africa.
All of this came rushing back the other night when the writer attended a special commemoration of the 16th June uprising at the Market Theatre. This theatre itself had come into being at almost exactly the same date and it quickly became the home of what came to be termed, “struggle theatre”. Its first three productions were foreign classics: Chekhov’s The Seagull, Miller’s The Crucible and Weiss’s Marat/Sade. All three were designed to sharply challenge the existing order – the first to speak of the confusions of Russians in their nation’s ancien regime; the second to speak knowingly about racial prejudice and mob hysteria in early New England, and the third to speak of an insane asylum in France where the inmates take over the hospital as the actual staff is reduced to impotent observers when the patients re-stage the death of Marat, a prominent figure of the French Revolution.
In the same 40 years that eventually brought down the apartheid regime, the Market Theatre demonstrated the power of culture in prepping audiences to think anew. And in this special event on the theatre’s calendar, artistic director, James Ngcobo, together with writer Sandile Ngidi, choreographer Luyanda Sidiya and music director Tshepo Mngoma, brought to life ordinary people affected by the student uprising – ranging from the students who fought the police to the parents whose children had died at the hands of the police.
The full house brought together a deputation of today’s students from Morris Isaacson HS, hundreds of others who had actually lived through the events, along with yet others who had only heard about it from family tales or their school history books and whose primary visual referent may only be Sam Nzima’s iconic photograph of Hector Pieterson’s lifeless body being carried by Mbuyisa Makhubu. For that, of course, is what the Soweto Uprising has become for many of South Africa’s youthful population – an historical event increasingly subsumed within a shopping and parties holiday called Youth Day, rather than anything speaking of students who took the direct action others may have shied away from back then.
Now, of course, the legacy of the Soweto Uprising has grown complicated. While the nation’s political system has, certainly, fundamentally changed, popular dissatisfaction with the circumstances of the present has generated a growing litany of “service delivery” protests, a new, angrier political party, the EFF, and a sense among many that the ANC has now lost its way by virtue of its corruption and hyper-patronage politics. Is there another profound upheaval in the wind?
A decade after the original Soweto Students Uprising, composer-dramatist Mbongeni Ngema had crafted a musical, Sarafina, on the events leading up to June 16. Naturally, it had premiered at the Market Theatre – and then it travelled abroad, becoming a long running hit in New York City, among many other stops. As the students come together for their march into history, they sing:
And If I don’t live to see the day,
You better believe it,
I’ll be there.
This is my home and I’m here to stay
Freedom is coming tomorrow,
Get ready, mama, prepare,
Freedom is coming tomorrow,
Get ready, mama, prepare….
Perhaps South Africans will march yet again in order to claim their full measure of freedom. And a full and proper contemplation of the meaning and sacrifice of June 16 might help remind that freedom is not simply the right to put a mark on one’s ballot, every five years. DM
Photo: Hector Pieterson being carried by Mbuyisa Makhubo. His sister, Antoinette Sithole, runs beside them. Photo by Sam Nzima.
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