Sunday, July 15, 2007

The Events Leading To The Uprisings

In 1974, the Director of Bantu Education in the Southern Transvaal (Mr Ackerman) issued a directive compelling school boards and principals of schools to use Afrikaans as the primary means of instruction. This directive followed an earlier imposition which divided school boards along ethnic lines. This ethnic division ensured that African children from the various ethnic groups would no longer be educated in the same classroom.

Previously, the choice between English and Afrikaans had rested in the hands of the community. With the freedom of choice taken away and with the enforcement of Afrikaans, parents, principals and the tribal school boards were naturally distraught. They saw the injunction as politically motivated and appealed to Ackerman to withdraw his ruling, but he remained unmoved.

The school boards in Soweto combined forces in August 1975 and formed the Federal Council of Transvaal School Boards, in order to deal with the language imposition with one voice. However, resistance to the Afrikaans directive was met with harsh consequences. In February 1976, Ackerman’s board fired members of the Tswana School Board for being too stubborn. Other members of the board resigned and parents of the represented school children supported them in their actions.

A crisis in education had developed. Disillusioned youth had watched their parents and teachers fail in attempts to reverse the Afrikaans instruction directive. On May 17th, students from Phefeni Junior Secondary School refused the imposition of Afrikaans instruction and began a boycott of classes. The students demanded to see the circuit inspector of African schools, M C de Beer. When he refused to meet with them, the students turned to violent action by first damaging the principal’s car and then stoning his office. De Beer reacted by threatening to expel the students but they continued their boycott of classes with the support of four other schools in Soweto.

Students were far more radical than their moderate parents. “Our parents are prepared to suffer under the white man’s rule. They have been living for years under these laws and have become immune to them. But we strongly refuse to swallow an education system that is designed to make us slaves in the country of our birth”, wrote a student in a letter to The World newspaper. (Hopkins and Grange 2001)

On June 9 1976, two policemen drove into Naledi High School to arrest a student for questioning. The principal warned them not to do so in the presence of other students. The policeman were confronted by angry students and needed to lock themselves in the principal’s office in order to escape the angry mob of students. Whilst in the principal’s office, the students set the police car alight.

It was around this period, with the banning of the ANC and the PAC, that a political vacuum was created. Leaders of both organizations were subsequently detained. Any political activity which lingered after the Sharpeville massacre ended with the Rivonia Treason Trail and subsequent life long jailing of Nelson Mandela, the ANC President along with others. Black Consciousness was born out of this political vacuum. The Cillie Commission found that the immediate cause of the riots related to the policy on language instruction at school but this was only one of the causes. Other grounds for dissatisfaction included:
  • The black consciousness movement (Cillie:601);
  • Political and military events in South Africa
  • The homelands policy
  • Influx control
  • Actions of the Administration Boards
  • UBC
  • Lack of citizenship related to the homelands policy


  1. The Cillie Commission, (1980): Report of the Commission of Inquiry into the riots at Soweto and other places in the Republic of South Africa during June 1976. Also: Unpublished minutes of evidence Volumes 1-69.
  2. Mashabela, H. (1987): A People on the Boil, Reflections on Soweto, Skotaville, Publishers, Johannesburg and Cape Town.
  3. Hopkins, P. and Helen G. (2001): The Rocky Rioter Teargas Show: The Inside Story of the 1976 Soweto Uprising, Cape Town, Zebra Publishers.

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Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Robert Berold's Story: Morris Isaacson High School

Robert Berold was a white english teacher at Morris Isaacson School in 1976. On June 16th his life was saved by an unknown student. Here is his story:

I was driving in my yellow Peugeot 404 bakkie which was our wedding present a few months ago. It was a cold sunny Wednesday. On the seat was a tape player with the Fairport Convention singing their version of "Sir Patrick Spens":

I saw the new moon late yestreen
with the old moon in her arms

I was teaching (illegally) in Soweto. Sir Patrick Spens was one of our matric poems.

For weeks the tension had been getting tighter and tighter. Dr Andries Treunicht the ex-dominee who headed the Department of Bantu Education had decided that schools – some schools anyway – were to be taught in the medium of Afrikaans. That meant all subjects – geography, maths, whatever – would be taught in Afrikaans. A provocative and crazy idea. Treurnicht knew that black students were weak in Afrikaans, in fact hated Afrikaans, the language of the oppressor. So why was he doing this? Sheer shit-headedness, the racist drive to be as shit to blacks as possible. The parents had formed a committee and gone to see the minister, but Treurnicht was not backing down. The deadline was next week.

Every morning I drove from our communal house in Houghton, onto the M1 South into Booysens, onto the no-man's-land road to Soweto, Diepkloof, left past Orlando Stadium, past the very first red brick houses, past the Orlando police station with its blue light and twitching radio masts, over the bridge to Phefeni, up to Maponya's store, down through the pleasant trees of Mofolo village, into the sea of asbestos roofs of White City Jabavu, up the hill and left into the Morris Isaacson Senior Secondary School yard enclosed in scraggly wire.

This morning no students were to be seen. Fanyano Mazibuko, the maths teacher, was driving out in his white VW beetle. 'The students have all gone out on a march' he said, 'I'm going to look for them.' It didn't look like Patrick Spens would get a hearing today.

I'd joined Morris Isaacson because I wanted to be in a black environment, which was a hard thing to do in the 1970s and usually illegal. For various reasons or delusions I trusted black people more than whites. When I came here I offered to teach maths but Mathebathe the headmaster said 'We need you to teach English, it's your home language, we can learn from you'. So here I was, my first teaching job, unqualified to teach, with huge classes, 50 or more kids, getting to grips with a ridiculous rote-learning syllabus. Silly textbooks, lists of comparisons, of idioms, all had to be learned off by heart. As white as snow, as black as pitch. As fast as a stolen car, one student wrote.

I had literary ambitions for them. I'd started a class library, got them to read books, introduced them to contemporary black poetry. They didn't feel the same way, they just wanted to get through their exams. They were curious about me, though, and once they'd established that I was too naive to be a police spy, they were friendly. Occasionally the daring guys from the Black Consciousness Movement would come to the school. The whole school would walk out of class for an hour while they addressed them. South Africa was going to be free, they said. Black man, you are on your own. Then they would disappear before the police could catch them.

For the past week, as the tension had been rising, posters had been going up 'YESTERDAY MOZAMBIQUE TODAY ZIMBABWE TOMORROW AZANIA'

And now today the whole school had gone off before assembly, marching to Naledi High. Nobody knew about it, not even the teachers. As I heard about it later, they were picking up each school and marching to the next one. The headmaster came and told the bored staff to stay in the staffroom. The students would be back soon, he said.

A few hours passed. The staff room was large and dark. Outside it was a bright winter morning. I was reading a library book, a Time-Life book on the religions of the world. Buddhist monks with shaved heads in yellow robes were praying in a temple somewhere in Asia. Then a boy burst into the room, running, very distressed. The students had been blocked by the police at the Orlando Bridge. They'd been shot at, and some students had been shot dead. And now they were on the rampage, burning buildings and cars.

We rushed outside. From the direction of Orlando, there were plumes of smoke rising. What now? Stay put, said the headmaster. More students arrived, out of breath, frightened, angry. Some of them had looted a liquor van and brought bottles of booze for the staff. Some of the male teachers started drinking voraciously.

I went outside again. The plumes of smoke were closer now. Not far away, in Jabavu, a building was burning, I could see the flames. Students were running in the streets. A white man was driving a municipality van, swaying from side to side down the road. His windscreen had been smashed and his face was bleeding. Boys threw rocks, they hit the car, but he carried on driving, bleeding.

Next thing the school was swarming with students, angry, running, like an ants nest that had been turned over. Some of them saw me, one of them shouted Hey Mr Berold, you'd better hide, these students have killed whites they will kill you! The same boy took me to the book room, a big walk-in room with a security door where the textbooks were stored. He told one of the teachers – you must lock him in here until the other students have gone. I stood in the bookroom listening to angry voices, slogans being shouted.

The students went off, running, and I was allowed out. Back in the staffroom, some of the teachers were now completely drunk from all the free booze. A building quite near the school was burning. We sat there in the semi-dark. How will I get out, in my brand new yellow car? We can take you in the boot of one of our cars, says one of the teachers.

The door burst open again. A scary sight – about 20 white soldiers in camouflage uniform. Or maybe they're policemen. They’re wild-eyed. All of them have sten guns. They glare at the black teachers like I've been taken prisoner. Their commander is dressed in a purple suit. 'Who are you?' he says to me. 'I work here' 'You better come with us'. I say goodbye to the teachers, feeling ashamed of being white, being claimed by these men with guns. Outside in the road there is a column of vehicles, an armoured car in the front and one behind. It's a convoy rescuing stranded whites. The street is lined with silent people, some of them my students. The police keep pointing their gun at the crowd, some of which scatters. The convoy moves slowly. I look at the angry mournful eyes. At one point the convoy stops, the police jump out angrily, students run madly across the veld, away from the guns.

Next thing I am in Booysens again, the busy everyday traffic of industrial downtown Johannesburg. The human storm hasn't reached here. Nobody yet knows what is happening in Soweto, not even the parents of the children who've been shot at.

I drive home with my tape recorder and Sir Patrick Spens. I don't know what to do or say. I lie down on the lawn of our communal house and try to think. There is nothing to think. I hear a loud noise overhead like a giant lawnmower, three army helicopters travelling southwest. I know where they're going. To Soweto. It's a chilling feeling.

That evening I go over to my parents' house. TV has just started up in South Africa. The only good programme, which I watch with them every Wednesday, is about the Second World War, called The World at War. Before that, the news. Some disturbance in Soweto. Nothing about children getting killed.

Over the next three days, 300 people died in Soweto, as children set up roadblocks, ignored their parents, and fought police with stones and petrol bombs. Morris Isaacson didn't open for classes for another two years. I wrote later, in a poem

I was lucky
the winds of blood blew past me

I wish I knew the name of the boy who locked me in the bookroom. He saved my life.

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The official version of the Soweto Uprisings

Nigel Mandy’s version of the morning of June 16 1976 is based on the findings of the Cillie Commission’s report. He provides justification for the police intervention by questioning the legality of the march. According to Mandy, a 1968 regulation provided that no public meeting or march could be held in Soweto without WRAB’s permission. The Cillie Commission report maintains that police were not aware of the intention of the students to march through the streets. Either way it was their duty to prevent an illegal march. A witness suggested that they should have stopped the students at the school and sent them home. Whether the police would have been successful in such an attempt to prevent the march by thousands of pupils and at the same time to keep the peace, cannot be established with certainty; they were unaware of the intentions and preparations, and therefore no such attempt was made to prevent the march and to keep the peace. As the march advanced a long way by the time police realised what was happening, it was their duty to stop the march and disperse the crowds (Cillie: 106).

Mandy’s version of the confrontation describes how the police convoy stopped about 100 paces from the crowd on Vilikazi Street. Col. Kleingeld shouted for the crowd to stand still. His voice was drowned by the uproar and the sound of stones raining down on his men and vehicles. He did not have a loud hailer and therefore no effective order had been given to the crowd to disperse. (Mandy 1982)

Col. Kleingeld then decided to disperse the crowd with tear gas but only one tear gas canister exploded. This action provoked a rain of stones from the students from all sides. The Colonel fired two warning shots into the air and ordered a baton charge. The baton charge was unsuccessful and two police dogs were killed. (Mandy 1982).

Mandy’s version continues by describing how the outnumbered policemen were encircled by angry students. According to Mandy, the policemen feared for their lives and he justifies the shooting which followed as moderate and controlled, reporting only 2 deaths and 11 injuries during the confrontation. (Mandy 1982:198).

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Monday, July 09, 2007

Soweto and the Defiance Campaign

The name Soweto is an acronym for the south-western townships of Johannesburg. The name Soweto was adopted in 1963 after a special committee held a naming competition for the township where hundreds of entries were submitted. Five suggestions were recommended, Soweto, Sawesko, Swestown, Phaphama Villages and Partheid Townships. The name Soweto was already in use before the special committee officially announced that is had been selected (Mandy 1982).

Soweto is a symbol of South Africa’s policy of apartheid, which refused to accept the mixing of races. Urban black people were relegated to a city with two cinemas, two banks and no supermarket. This was to the advantage of white businessmen as blacks were forced shop in Johannesburg CBD.

There were many oppressive laws and measures aimed at repressing black people. The repressive laws laid the foundation for the mass-based defiance campaign intent on liberation. The defiance campaign received support from all sectors of society. This changed perceptions of some members of the ANC with regards to Africanism. Oliver Tambo, Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu began to have second thoughts about Africanism and embraced multiculturalism. This was reaffirmed by the Freedom Charter, which was adopted in 1955 in Kliptown, Soweto, to represent the demands of a disenfranchised black community. It was this issue, multiculturalism that led to the breakaway by Zeph Mothopeng and Robert Sobukwe and the forming of the Pan African Congress (PAC) in 1959 (Mashabela 1984).

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