You are looking at posts tagged with Morris Isaacson High School.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Process: Mapping The Morris Isaacson High School Route

Date: 24 July 2006
Route guides: Mpafi Mpafi and Oupa Moloto
Facilitator: Ali Hlongwane
Documenter: Ismail Farouk

Early on the 24th of July 2006, a bitterly cold morning, our research group set off from the Hector Pieterson Museum and Memorial (HPMM) to retrace the main route from Morris Isaacson High School in Central Western Jabavu to Phefeni Senior Secondary School in Orlando West. Our objectives were to map the route and identify important landmarks and places of interest along the way.

Our beginning point was Jabulani Hostels in Moahloli Street at the point before the street becomes Mputhi Street. “Jabulani” means happiness. However, Mpafi Mpafi reminded us that the history of Jabulani Hostel dwellers and their relationship with township residents was not always happy. Running battles between hostel inmates and township residents occurred here during 1976.

outside jabulani hostels
Figure: The Research Group Standing Outside Jabulani Hostels

Factors contributing to the hostility between hostel dwellers and township residents include the use of hostel inmates as strike breakers during the stay-away of 23 -25 August 19761. The Soweto Students Representative Council (SSRC) called for mass stay-away protests between August and November 1976. Hostel dwellers ignored this stay-away call because of the intervention of the police, Inkatha and the Soweto Urban Bantu Council. This led to the harassment of hostel dwellers by township youth. Other factors included the nature of the hostel institution which created class separation from the rest of the township community1. Living conditions in hostels were squalid and inmates had no rights whatsoever. Hostels were made up of large halls with communal facilities. Common water taps, showers and toilets were provided outside hostels. The poor conditions within hostels encouraged anti-social behaviour.

From Jabulani Hostels it is possible to see the Oppenheimer Tower in the distance. We headed off towards the tower by first travelling north on Mputhi Street and then west, by turning left into Taelo Street. At the intersection of Mputhi and Taelo streets there was much paving activity, part of the JRA sidewalk paving project.

We reached Oppenheimer Tower complex which is set within parklike surroundings. The tower was built in 1955 from ash bricks which were the remains of shantytowns.

Oppenheimer tower
Figure: Oppenheimer Tower

The view from the tower provides a sense of the vastness of Soweto. From here looking south, there is a great view of the train-like housing architecture of Jabulani Hostels. Further in the south-west, the West Rand Administration Board (WRAB) Fresh Fruit Market is visible. The WRAB Fresh Fruit Market was set alight and destroyed on June 16 1976. We were reminded of the violence of that day’s events by Oupa Moloto recalling the gruesome sight of a headless boy lying on the ground with a cabbage under each arm.

View of Soweto
Figure: The vastness of Soweto from Oppenheimer Tower

Other landmarks visible from the tower include the 1976 memorial acre and the former home of Tsietsie Mashinini (see below), both of which are located close by in the suburb of Central Western Jabavu which surrounds the tower complex to the north and east. Still within the Oppenheimer gardens, we took a moment under the shadow cast by the Oppenheimer Tower where Mpafi Mpafi reminded us of the running battles between township residents and hostel dwellers which occurred in the park. He also pointed out that the gardens were a place of refuge for students who hid amongst the trees.

The Oppenheimer Tower is located adjacent to The Credo Mutwa Cultural Village. The village, also known as Khayalendaba, or "Place of Stories", has always been associated with story-telling, rituals and ceremonies, plays and other cultural activities. Its founder, Credo Mutwa is a Zulu Sangoma or traditional healer, a cultural historian and an award-winning nature conservationist in South Africa. Credo who is over 80 years old, is known worldwide as the Zulu Shaman. In 1976 students thought he was a collaborator and his house in Diepkloof was burnt down in the aftermath of June 16. Later most of the cultural village was destroyed too because of Credo Mutwa’s testimony in the state’s official enquiry into the student uprisings.

Credo Mutwa
Figure: Mythological Sculpture at Credo Mutwa

From the Credo Mutwa Village and Oppenheimer Tower complex we headed back to Mputhi Street and parked across from Morris Isaacson High School at the 1976 Memorial Acre, which is in the process of development. Mpafi remarked that it was students from Morris Isaacson High School who were central to the planning of the student march on June 16. One such student, Tsietsie Mashinini, lived across the road from Morris Isaacson High School.

House Tsietsie Mashinini
Figure: The Home Of Tsietsie Mashinini

Today, the family of Tsietsie Mashinini is trying to purchase the former family home with a view to converting it into a family museum in honour of the fallen hero. The 1976 Memorial Acre contains a newly erected monument in Tsietsie’s honour. The monument was created as part of the Sunday Times Heritage Public Art programme. Its physical form resembles a giant book which symbolizes the crisis in education experienced in 1976. On the face of the book is the map of the route taken by the students from Morris Isaacson High School to Phefeni Junior Secondary in Orlando West, whilst the back cover of the ‘book’ is inscribed with a tribute to Tsietsie Mashinini.

Tsietsie Mashinini Monument (Sunday Times)
Figure: Monument to Tsietsie Mashinini

We continued up Mputhi Street past the killing site of Dr Melville Edelstein. Dr. Edelstein was one of two white officials beaten to death that day. A sociologist, Dr. Edelstein worked closely with many youth from Soweto. Earlier on the fateful morning, he greeted students as they past his house on Mputhi Street. However, once news of Hector Pieterson's death filtered through the ranks, happiness turned to anger and Dr. Edelstein was murdered for being a white man in the wrong place at the wrong time. Ironically, Dr Edelstein had warned that the hostility of township youth should be taken as a serious threat to peace in Soweto. In his thesis, written five years prior to the events of June 16, "What Young Africans Think” (1971), 73 percent of the youth interviewed listed inadequate political rights among major grievances.

Dr. M. Edelstein
Figure: Dr. Melvillle Edelstein's body was found here on Mputhi Street.

We briefly left the route in order to document two houses of historical significance. The first, belonging to Titi Mthenjana was known as ‘The Headquarters’ or HQ. This house was a safe haven for students who would sleep here in order to escape harassment by the police. The second house also a safe haven for students belongs to Mr Mbatha, a student mentor and advisor. Mr Mbatha’s home has changed considerably over time but Oupa Moloto still remembers how the home hosted important meetings of the SSRC.

Figure: Mshenguville Informal Settlement

We returned to Mputhi Street and drove past Mshenguville Squatter camp, a former golf course. Further north on Mputhi Street, beyond the Roodeport intersection, the street name changes to Machaba Street. We turned right into Zulu Street and 200m ahead came to the site where Tsietsie Mashinini addressed crowds of students on the landmark bridge. The bridge is relatively unchanged since the 70s. Here Mashinini exhorted the students to remain calm and protest peacefully.

tsietsie landmark bridge
Figure: The Bridge where Tsietsie addressed students.

We continued towards Orlando West past the point where Machaba Street becomes Mahalafele Street, turned right into Phiri Street and left into Vilikazi Street. Our journey ended on Vilikazi Street at the intersection with Moema Street outside Phefeni Junior Secondary School. This is where students congregated on the morning of June 16 1976. Today this intersection has been memorialised by a monument marking the shooting site of Hector Pierterson. For many this is where the march ended as waiting police opened fire on protesting students.


1. Moss, G. (1982): 'Crisis and Conflict: Soweto 1976-7', MA dissertation, University of the Witwatersrand.

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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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Thursday, September 21, 2006

Morris Isaacson High School Route

One of the main routes of the 1976 Soweto Uprisings from Morris Isaacson High School in Central Western Jabavu to Phefeni Junior Secondary School in Orlando West.

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