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Opinion Soweto: The Day That Changed A Nation's History


Jun 1, 2004
Soweto: The day that changed a nation's history
If one day can change the course of a nation's history, then this was such a day. The unrest that exploded in Soweto on 16 June 1976 spread like a wildfire across South Africa - and sealed the fate of the apartheid regime. On the 30th anniversary of the uprising, Raymond Whitaker, who witnessed the events as a young reporter, returns to the township where hope was born...

That photo changed my life," says Antoinette Sithole. "It will be with me as long as I live." She is talking about one of the most famous images of the 20th century. Think of the Vietnam war, and we picture a naked child fleeing from a napalm attack. Think of the brutality of apartheid, and we picture the horror on the face of a schoolgirl whose dying brother, shot by the South African police moments before, is being carried in the arms of a stranger. That photograph was taken in Soweto 30 years ago today, on 16 June 1976. Sithole is the 16-year-old schoolgirl in the picture. Her brother, killed at the age of 13, was Hector Pieterson.

When the shooting began, says Sithole, "I came out of hiding and saw Hector, and I called him to me. He was looking around as I called his name, trying to see who was calling him. I waved at him, he saw me and came over. I asked him what he was doing there ... There was a shot, and I ran back to my hiding place. When I looked out I couldn't see Hector; I waited, I was afraid; where was he?

"Then I saw a group of boys struggling. This gentleman came from nowhere, lifted a body, and I saw the front part of the shoe, which I recognised as Hector's. This man started to run with the body, I ran alongside." That was the moment the three of them were photographed.

Hector was not the first to die that day - that was a boy called Hastings Ndlovu - but the power of the picture made him a symbol. The memorial to the Soweto schoolchildren's uprising bears his name; so does the adjoining museum, which explains that this moment, when black pupils in the vast township near Johannesburg refused to accept that they should be forced to study in Afrikaans, the language of the oppressor, was when apartheid began to collapse. Since the advent of majority rule, 16 June has become Youth Day, a national holiday.

Sithole, now 46, has become a guide at the museum, which opened five years ago. Every day she relates what happened to her and to Hector. Every day she sees the iconic photograph, the centrepiece of the memorial. As each 16 June approaches, copies of it appear around Soweto. This year the image has been all but ubiquitous, because it has been reproduced on the posters, hanging from almost every lamppost, advertising today's 30th anniversary commemoration. President Thabo Mbeki will lead a march along the route that the students took in 1976, from Morris Isaacson High School in Jabavu to Orlando West Junior School, where the bloody confrontation with the police took place.

"To me, it is a mission," says Sithole when I ask how it feels to be confronted at every turn by the tragedy of three decades ago. "We can't stop the use of Hector's name, so I want to make sure it is used positively." But when we meet she is clad in blue overalls and a matching floppy hat, because she is working on a dusty roadside, helping to build a pavement that will one day stretch the entire length of the students' march.

Made out of pink bricks, which are meant to symbolise the blood shed in the uprising, the pavement is both a commemoration and an employment-creation project, but, for this woman at least, it is also a brief escape from her daily remembrance at the museum. "Not everybody here knows who I am," she confesses. "I don't want them to make a fuss."

I, too, was a witness to the events of June 1976. The apartheid government banned most whites from setting foot in Soweto, but newspaper reporters were a rare exception, and I went there on various stories for The Star, a Johannesburg daily.

There was no hint then of the unrest that would eventually spread from Soweto to all the townships of South Africa. It seemed that any potential opposition had been jailed, banned, driven into exile or simply killed off years before. But as the cold, dry Highveld winter of 1976 set in, and the apartheid ideologues arrogantly insisted that black pupils should be forced to learn certain subjects in Afrikaans, a language they hated, the editor of our Soweto edition, Tony Duigan, began to warn that there would be trouble. We could not say so in the paper, of course: that would have been seen as sedition.

When the reports of shooting began to come in on 16 June, I was sent with a photographer to fly over Soweto in a light aircraft and report on what was going on. I had not yet learnt how often farce accompanies tragedy, and found nothing to relish in the fact that the only pilot available at such short notice seemed to be a dangerous eccentric, with unkempt hair and filthy fingernails, and a plane to match. The radio was faulty, but he took off anyway, guessing what the control tower was saying to him and making what he hoped were suitable replies.

Arriving over Soweto, we could see crowds of schoolchildren forming and splitting in the veld below in response to unseen alarms. The roar of the aircraft engine drowned out the sound of gunfire, and the tear-gas being sprayed everywhere obscured much of the scene, but we could see a half-built school being torn apart for missiles to throw at the police.

In the driveway of the hated Bantu Administration Board, youths leapt back as the car they had just overturned went up in a ball of flame. It belonged to a sociologist, Dr Melville Edelstein, who was one of two white officials beaten to death that day. (It says volumes that the toll among the schoolchildren remains imprecise. Estimates range from several dozen deaths on the first day of the uprising to as many as 600.) As we returned, narrowly avoiding a mid-air collision just before landing, the photographer was already developing his film, but none of his pictures could match the impact of the one of Hector Pieterson.

The uprising destroyed any illusion that the townships were passive, and the greatest jolt was the fury directed against any form of authority. "People stoned anything that symbolised the state or white power," Oupa Moloto, then a student leader, tells me 30 years later. "We attacked beer halls [where young black firebrands accused their elders of drinking themselves into submission, and profiting their oppressors at the same time, because the halls were a municipal monopoly], administration offices, even company delivery vans."

Such anarchy meant that, when I ventured into Soweto the next day, I had to take refuge at the police station in Orlando township, which was surrounded by hostile crowds as the sun climbed. Armoured trucks known as Hippos, filled with rifle-firing policemen, roared around in unsuccessful attempts to scatter the rioters, while a helicopter dropped crate after crate of tear-gas shells from the air, touching down on a field nearby from time to time to obtain more ammunition. One patrol brought back a body in a blood-drenched candlewick bedspread and dumped it on the grass outside the commander's office, where it lay all morning. From the detention cells came the sound of blows, and the screams of a prisoner being beaten.

A convoy was formed to evacuate people from Soweto, and I found myself in the back of a two-door Volkswagen Beetle with two white police sergeants who boasted of having been at the Sharpeville massacre 16 years before. "We shot some kaffirs then, and I want the chance to shoot some more," said one. All their bravado disappeared, however, as we ran the gauntlet of the stone-throwers.

The driver lost control as he tried to negotiate a barrier thrown up by the rioters, and we crashed into a petrol drum, immobilising the car. The policemen blazed away with their revolvers in panic. "Keep them back, or we're dead," one of them shouted, and as I cowered in the back, unable to escape, I knew that I would share in whatever fate came their way. But our escort came back to rescue us, and we escaped without further incident, in silence.

If whites could have seen what was happening in Soweto, they might have understood why the unrest spread to almost every township in the country within days. But that was the purpose of the townships - to keep the black majority at a safe distance. Once it became clear that the violence was unlikely to spill over into their suburbs, the white community, with few exceptions, tried to put the uprising out of their minds. My newspaper and the rest of the English-language press were criticised for dwelling on the subject, while the nascent SABC television service, which had done a creditable job of covering the first couple of days of the revolt, was quickly brought to heel. No pictures of what was happening in the townships were ever shown again while the white government remained in power.

I left South Africa for good a year after the uprising began. It would be more than a dozen years before Nelson Mandela was released from prison, and the best part of two decades before he was inaugurated as the first freely elected president in South Africa's history. But 16 June 1976 was the beginning of the end of apartheid. From that day on, the white regime never regained control of the townships, and in the end it had to surrender its grip on the country.

In the weeks and months after 16 June, according to Anthony Mphafi, a former student leader, any revolutionary euphoria in Soweto soon evaporated. "We were burying people every day of the week, and that changed the whole mood," he says. "We felt under siege."

Everything became subservient to the struggle. The "comrades" shut down contraception clinics, believing that mothers should have more babies to serve the cause. "There were no wedding parties, because it was not the moment to make merry," says Mphafi, now 52. Schools lost most of their pupils in obedience to the slogan "Liberation, then education", and the results are still being felt today.

With the police enforcing apartheid rather than law and order in the 1970s, and struggling today with a lack of resources, vigilantism has always been present in Soweto. "We students used to confront the tsotsis [robbers] and search them," says Mphafi. "If we found anything they would be beaten, sometimes killed. It still happens."

But among a generation unschooled in anything but the catchphrases of mass action, the militant fervour of June 1976 often degenerated into thuggery and intimidation. This reached its nadir in Winnie Mandela's notorious "football team", in reality a group of young thugs who terrorised Soweto. Anyone who opposed them risked being denounced as a sell-out and suffering a dreadful death by "necklacing", when a petrol-soaked tyre would be put around the victim's neck and set alight.

Those anarchic days have receded, but Mphafi admits that "many foot-soldiers in the revolution missed out. They had unrealistic expectations - they thought that, once freedom came, we could all live like whites. Now they have responsibilities, but no education."

And as these middle-aged veterans struggle to ensure that their children get a better start than they themselves had, they encounter a bitter irony: the schools they walked out of, in protest against an inferior education, are often scarcely any better today, due to both poor social conditions and lack of funding. Many better-off parents are sending their children to fee-paying schools in the white areas, where - and this must be the ultimate irony - some of them are taught in Afrikaans.

Mphafi and Moloto both worked undercover for the ANC while earning a modest living during the apartheid years. They are now active in the June 16th Foundation, an organisation of veterans that seeks to keep the memory of the uprising alive as well as engaging in social projects, but they sometimes feel that those who are the same age now as they were in 1976 do not appreciate their sacrifice.

"Younger people can be passive and ignorant of issues," says Moloto. "Some of them treat the commemoration day as just another party. I was at Orlando Stadium last year, and there was lots of liquor and kwaito music. When I complained, they said it was just youthful energy, but other countries have more dignified commemorations of their history."

It is probably inevitable that young Sowetans, who have no memory of apartheid, seem to treat the battles of the past irreverently. "In those days, everything was political," one tells me. "Now you can think about other things, like music or football." Another even hinted at envy for the clarity of purpose that existed then, saying: "There was only one goal - to get rid of racism. Things are much more complicated for us now. They did not have to face Aids."

Given the ravages of HIV/Aids in South Africa, which has an estimated 5.5 million diagnosed cases, the highest total of any nation in the world, the struggle against apartheid can seem like an age of innocence. The figures for the number of households where both parents have died, and orphaned children are being brought up by a grandparent or older sibling, are terrifying. Even in Soweto, on the doorstep of the richest city in the country, access to retroviral drugs is by no means universal.

"The challenges young people face today are very different from those we had to deal with in 1976," Moloto concedes. "We mustn't get immersed in history. The foundation is working to tackle Aids because it goes hand in hand with poverty, and that is a legacy of apartheid."

Even today, Soweto can sometimes seem to be out of sight and out of mind. On the main route south out of central Johannesburg, the N1, there is no turn-off indicated for it. Further on, there is a sign for Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital, the largest in Africa, which serves the township, but again there is no indication that this is the other main route into a conurbation that once rivalled Johannesburg in size.

For more than a century - in 1904, the white authorities reluctantly set aside some land as a "labour reserve" to house the black workers needed in the gold mines - Soweto has been purely functional. Even its name is not African - it is an acronym of South-western Townships. As Johannesburg's labour demands grew, its population swelled to more than a million, but the township did not have a single cinema or supermarket. Any improvements, such as the building programme of the 1950s that replaced shanties with bleak brick homes, were aimed more at economic efficiency than social benevolence.

The ultimate insult was the Orlando power station, whose cooling towers were one of the few landmarks among the township's endless rows of matchbox houses. All the electricity it generated went to the white areas; apart from the power plant, surrounded by a high, barbed-wire fence, the only electric lights to be seen in Soweto were erected on giant standards, one to each block of houses, so that the police could see where they were going. In winter, when the residents burned wood and coal for heating as well as cooking, there was a constant pall of smoke over Soweto. It was almost as if the authorities wanted to make the place look like a prison camp.

Yet, throughout the apartheid era, black South Africans yearned to have the right to live in Soweto, because there was work in Johannesburg, unlike the conditions of near-starvation in the "tribal homelands" where they were all supposed to go one day. The most miserable sight I ever saw in Soweto was the "transit hostel" where people without the right papers were held before their banishment from the city.

With black doctors, lawyers and entrepreneurs forced to live in Soweto, no matter how wealthy they were, it is no surprise that the uprising started there, rather than in the impoverished rural areas. The schoolchildren who revolted in 1976 were an elite compared with the downtrodden millions elsewhere in South Africa who had no jobs or schools at all.

And what of today? The population of Soweto has fallen below a million, on some estimates, as the small proportion of black businessmen and professionals who can afford to move to the formerly all-white suburbs do so. "Rich people think you're a loser if you live here," says one resident, but the end of restrictions on population movement has seen squatter camps - or "informal settlements", in the politically correct parlance of the new South Africa - springing up on the township's fringes. In Soweto itself, house prices are rising faster than anywhere else in South Africa.

The reason for this apparent paradox is that a general property boom has priced smarter areas out of the reach of much of South Africa's growing black middle class. New developments cannot keep up, so buyers are competing hard against each other for the few houses to come on the market in Soweto. Often the successful bidder will demolish it and build a new home.

Some Sowetans who could afford to live elsewhere prefer to stay. They find it stifling in the mainly white areas, with their high walls and paranoia about crime, and see that Soweto is improving, with heavy municipal spending on amenities such as roads and street lights. Although it still lacks shops - more than 80 per cent of the township's spending is done outside its boundaries - two malls have already opened, and at least four more are on the way.

As regards the smoke and dust I remember from 1976, electrification of the townships, one promise on which the new government has managed to deliver, has eased the pollution - though none of the power comes from the Orlando station, which is now out of use.

The cooling towers are painted funky colours, ahead of plans to turn them and the accompanying lake into a sports and leisure resort, with boating, abseiling and the inevitable gambling. As for the dust, the municipal authorities are trying to do something about it with paving projects such as the one Sithole is working on.

Even though Soweto still does not look like a normal city, it has a measure of hard-won pride. One thing has not changed, however - very few South African whites ever go there. Four-fifths of the tourists who visit the monument to the uprising are foreign; at Mandela's former home nearby, the proportion rises to 100 per cent.

Sithole changes out of her overalls and returns with us to the Hector Pieterson Memorial to be photographed next to the image of 1976. As soon as she appears, you can hear guides telling the parties of schoolchildren they are showing around: "Look, that's his sister!"

While Hector passed into history, everyone else involved in the picture had their lives changed by it. Mbuyisa Makhubo was the schoolboy who picked Hector up and put him into a journalist's car to be taken to a clinic, where he was pronounced dead on arrival. Harassed by the police afterwards, Makhubo went into exile, like thousands of other young people from the townships.

Many trained as guerrillas abroad, some completed their education and went to foreign universities, some died mysteriously - and Makhubo simply disappeared. His mother told the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) that she received a letter from him in 1978, sent from Nigeria, but nothing more has ever been heard of him.

Sam Nzima, who took the sequence of six photographs of Hector, Sithole and Makhubo, was working for The World, a newspaper aimed at black readers that belonged to the same group as The Star. It was shut down by the government a few months after the events of June 1976. He went into hiding for three weeks after the security police summoned him to John Vorster Square, the police headquarters in Johannesburg notorious for deaths in custody, and then decided to leave the city for his own safety. He has never returned.

After running an off-licence in the far north-east of the country for a while, Nzima opened a school of photography in Bushbuckridge, the remote town where he now lives. In 1999 he was given the copyright of his photographs of Hector after Independent News and Media, the publisher that also owns this newspaper, took over the group that used to publish The World.

If Makhubo represents a lost generation and Nzima is one of the millions cheated of opportunity by apartheid, Sithole stands above all for survival. She, too, was harassed by the police after 16 June, but says her family supported her. "My mother told us not to be a target, to stay out of trouble, but my granny spoke Afrikaans, and she used to tell the police to leave me alone."

Barely a year after the death of her brother, however, she was married - partly, one suspects, because her family felt it would give her additional protection. She had a son, now 24, who is named Hector because of his resemblance to his dead uncle. That marriage did not last, and she has two teenage children with her present husband, Meshak Sithole, who works as a warehouse supervisor.

Although she is scarcely taller now than when she was 16, Sithole has all the resilience one would expect from someone who has lived in Soweto all her life. As we talk, she pulls out a tin of snuff and takes a hearty snort. She completed her schooling, even though she was already married, and went to work, first for a mail-order company selling books, then for a travel agent, as soon as her children were old enough. When she was laid off, she began selling curios outside the museum dedicated to her brother, and now works there.

She clearly has an ambiguous relationship with her fame. It has taken her to many countries - the first time she left South Africa was in 1989, to open a school named after Hector in Berlin - but she prefers "people to get to know me first, before they learn who I am. I don't want to be put on a pedestal. I don't want to be labelled. What happened was tragic, but I don't want people feeling sorry for me."

She is keenly aware, too, of the role that chance has played in her life. Hector, as a primary school pupil, was not even supposed to be on the march. And what kind of irony is it that her father Europeanised the family name to Pieterson? It made Hector's name far easier to remember abroad than the one he was born with - Zolile Hector Pitso. "My father did it to improve our economic opportunities," she says. "It was easier to get work if white people could say your name."

Nor, after all these years, can Sithole summon much bitterness about what happened. "The TRC asked us if we wanted to know who had shot Hector, but I didn't want to be a judge," she says. "He wasn't the only one who died that day. What happened was an accident. It doesn't make me a celebrity.

"I was a nobody, Hector was a nobody. What it proves is that you don't have to be famous to change the lives of other people."


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