Soweto, June 16, 1976: Black Township Pupils Vs. Settler Colonial Apartheid



This sixth and last contribution addresses a crucial moment of the Black struggle against the apartheid in what Tshepo Madlingozi calls “the country with no name.” Durban-based architecture graduate Terrence Mkhwanazi associates here a short text to one of his brilliant cartography of the 1976 Soweto Uprising. 

About four and a half decades ago, students were already at the heart of South African politics, and new organizations and movements were articulating a strong critique of the apartheid social order. Their politics were frequently expressed through protests. In some years, they reshaped politics in South Africa. Previously unimaginable and often repressed ideas emerged in the course of these protests, and formed the basis of new political organizations. New types of activists became visible — not just by students, but also by workers. New political identities were formed, and new alliances became possible.

On the morning of June 16, 1976, numerous Black school children led a series of protests and demonstrations in the streets of Soweto, Johannesburg, in response to the policies of the Apartheid government such as the Bantu Education Act of 1953 and the Afrikaans Medium Decree of 1974 — which was deeply resented by the Black population and considered the immediate cause for the Uprising. The Afrikaans Medium Decree was to force all Black schools to use Afrikaans and English as the language of instruction, and indigenous languages at a lower level. 

With the growth of resentment and rise of political consciousness, partly thanks to the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM), South African Students’ Movement (SASM), and the formation of the South African Students Organisation (SASO) supplemented by growing anti-Apartheid energy within the youth, students formed an action committee.

On Sunday June 13, 1976, hundreds of students of several schools from across Soweto gathered at the Donaldson Community Centre in Orlando, Soweto. According to Motapanyane, this was organized by SASM, to discuss the necessity of “a mass demonstration from the Soweto students as a whole.” During the course of the meeting, he recalled: “We decided to have a committee that would take charge of the whole thing” (Sechaba, 1977).

It was decided that this committee — named simply the “Action Committee” — would consist of an executive elected at the meeting, as well as two further members from each of the schools in Soweto. Tsietsi Mashinini, the leader of the SASM branch at Morris Isaacson High School, was elected to the Committee’s executive and suggested that a demonstration be held three days later, on Wednesday June 16.

On Tuesday June 15, the Action Committee held a brief meeting to ensure that the march had a schedule. The primary concern was that “if some schools left prematurely, they would get cut off from the rest” (Alan Brooks and Jeremy Brickhill, Whirlwind, 1980). Each school was therefore to be assigned a schedule and route. According to the Cillié Commission’s report, three streams were identified, moving from Morris Isaacson, Naledi and Sekano-Ntoane schools. Others would join as they passed, and all would congregate outside the Orlando West High School before moving on to the Orlando Stadium to demonstrate against the government’s directives.

According to one of Brooks and Brickhill’s anonymous informants: “Before we marched on the 16th, we decided there should be no placard inciting the police as such. Placards should only be against Afrikaans […] we wanted a very peaceful demonstration — it had to be disciplined.” This avoidance of conflict resonated with the memories of a student at Phefeni, who believed that the march would be carnivalesque — that “it would be a Guy Fawkes thing” (Sifiso Mxolisi Ndlovu, Counter Memories of June 1976, 1998).

For the majority of students, Wednesday June 16 began unremarkably: “we went to school as if it was just a normal day. There was nothing. We even learnt well.” “We arrived at school and went to assembly […] we entered the classrooms.” “There was normal schooling.” This was interrupted, though, when students from other schools streamed past and, according to George Baloyi, “told us that we must knock off because there was Black Power.” Others remembered similar scenes: “There were these students from the high schools. They entered into our school to tell us that now we will have to stop learning because now is Black Power.” “These guys just came in and went ‘Out, out, out, out, out’ and ‘Amandla!’ [Power!]” (E. Brink, G. Malungane, S. Lebelo, D. Ntshangase & S. Krige, Soweto, 2001).

In the early hours of the same morning, the South African Police and the army had begun to gather at street corners scattered along the students’ routes. From about 8am, they began to challenge isolated groups of students, responding by firing teargas and later, live ammunition on demonstrating students. These early incidents gave rise to rumors of police violence, which ran through Soweto, and then erupted into fact around 11am outside Orlando West High School.

On June 16 alone, the police killed eleven people — although this number is widely disputed — the first believed to be students Hector Pieterson and Hastings Ndlovu. Over the next few days this number would increase dramatically into the hundreds. It was, in part, the undeniable force of the dead — the physical and symbolic presence of mute bodies — that would make the Uprising what it was. But, of course, the Uprising was not simply the events of one day. It continued, expanded, and reverberated across the country. 

The Soweto Uprising cartographies (cf. next pages) map out sequence of events of June 16, based on eyewitness accounts of students, journalists that were on scene, media output and as well as police reports — collected mostly from the Truth and Reconciliation Commision, Cillie Commission of Inquiry, and the book Counter Memories of June 1976 by Sifiso Mxolisi Ndlovu. With history retold, a lot depends on the perspective of the person telling the story and those who have written about it. As a result, in certain instances, the cartographies depict such contradictions in narratives within the sequence of events, with a mismatch to those as told by then state media. A strong characteristic of state propaganda is its ability, as ideology, to legitimize and validate itself — the same can be said of Apartheid. The use of violence and intimidation, as in 1976, became a key tool in portraying students/protestors as “mobs” in various manifestations which continued to threaten social order. The rhetoric of the state, transmuted to the media, worked to maintain the position of Blacks, fighting for their rights, as subversive and dangerous forces. ■

Mkhwanazi Funambulist (2)Mkhwanazi Funambulist (1)

This work was originally created by Terrence Mkhwanazi at the University of Johannesburg under the supervision of Sumayya Vally (2019).