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Sunday, August 19, 2007

The Uprisings in Diepkloof

Steve Lebelo was a student from Madibane High School in Diepkloof. His life and future in the liberation struggle was shaped by the killing of his older brother Abe Lebelo who was killed on the 4th of August 1976. Following his death, Steve Lebelo decided to take on the liberation struggle as a personal goal (Brink and Malungane 2001).

According to Lebelo, Diepkloof is steeped in the history of resistance going back to the 1940s and 50s, long before the location was established. The community resettled in Diepkloof in the second half of 50s and early 60s came from a tradition of resistance to Apartheid. The first group of families resettled in Diepkloof was drawn from the legendary Sophiatown, the freehold township held up as a model of resistance to white rule in South Africa (Lebelo 2006).

Lebelo’s testimony claims that Diepkloof was as prepared for the revolt as were Naledi, White City and Orlando West. Madibane High School in Diepkloof was represented in the meeting that decided on the march and established the Soweto Students’ Representative Council (SSRC). At Madibane High School students were notified of the march as early 14th June 1976.

"From the morning assembly on 16 June 1976, Madibane High School students did not march into their classrooms. Instead, they headed to the centre of the township, having been joined by students from nearby Namedi Junior Secondary School. Both groups of students marched along Immink Drive towards the Diepkloof Sports Grounds. Here they were scheduled to meet with students from Bopa Senatla Junior Secondary School, and together march down Masopha Street towards Orlando Stadium .

By the time the marching students reached the sports ground area, they had been joined by hundreds in the township. News of developments in Orlando West reached Diepkloof even before students could start the march down Masopha Street to Orlando Stadium. Because Diepkloof had Council police headquarters located next to the sports ground where students converged, they responded quickly to the threat, dismissing students with teargas.

As the crowds scattered, mayhem followed. Students and unemployed youth returned and started attacking the nearby beer hall. The beer hall was gutted by fire within an hour and crowds from the township looted it. The next building to be attacked was the Council Offices in Zone 1, but by the time the students reached the offices, all white personnel had been evacuated. This followed the murder of Dr. Edelstein in White City earlier in the morning. By midday, students and unemployed youth were making their way home with large quantities of liquor looted from the beer hall. What followed was drinking and festivities, signaling that the next few days were destined to be spent at home."

Extract from submission by Steve Lebelo (2006).

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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

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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Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Why Hector Pieterson?

Today it is widely known that Hector Pieterson was not the first child killed on June 16 1976. The first to die was Hastings Ndlovu. So why do we memorialise Hector Pieterson and not Hastings Ndlovu?

A primary reason is because Hector Pieterson’s death was captured by photographer Sam Nzima. The photograph depicts Hector Pieterson being carried by an older boy with his sister running alongside. This famous photograph was plastered on newspaper front pages globally, bringing much attention to the actions of the police and the plight of the school children in Soweto. Today, this image has become an icon, an instrument of collective history and memory.

In the aftermath of the violence, a mass burial was planned for the dead. An application to hold a mass burial was made to the Johannesburg Chief Magistrate which was denied. Further attempts to list all the dead were foiled by the police as the bereaved families were denied access to the bodies of the dead.

A decision was made to hold a symbolic funeral using Hector Pieterson’s funeral as a symbol for all those who lost their lives during the Soweto uprisings of 1976.