Survivor recalls 16 June 1976

Monday, June 16, 2014

Bathandwa Mbola speaks to a survivor of the 1976 June 16 student revolt.

In their numbers, they woke up that morning and refused to go to school and instead, marched to Orlando Stadium.

Although the rally was intended to be a peace protest, things soon got out of control and riots were seen all over the place. Soon there was blood and a sea of dead bodies.  Hundreds of students were killed and many were left injured. And although this youth revolution did not necessarily lead to an immediate change in the government’s prejudicial language policy, for one Soweto man, it did see a turning point in South Africa’s liberation campaign which ultimately saw the downfall of the apartheid government.

When Phala Modise from Jabavu, Soweto, risked his life to participate in the now famous June 16 1976 student march, he had no idea that the events of that day would grab the world's attention and help change the course of South African history.

He was only 16-years-old at the time and pupil at the now renowned Morris Issacson High School.

He recalls that fateful June morning as thousands of pupils from Soweto took to the streets to protest the apartheid education system that obliged them to be taught in Afrikaans. Among the protestors was 13-year-old Hector Peterson who is believed to have been the first casualty in the hail of bullets.

Modise and other pupils who took part in the march could not accept the government’s directive that English and Afrikaans be used as a medium of instruction in schools on a 50-50 basis.

What this meant was that maths and social studies were to be taught in Afrikaans, while general science and practical subjects such as housecraft and woodwork would be taught in English.

Today the June 16 protest is usually evoked by a famous image captured by photographer Sam Nzima of a one of the first victims, the young Peterson. In the picture the boy is seen carried by Mbuyisa Makhubo, while Hector’s sister Antoinette Sithole ran alongside.

Modise, now 54, recalls the events of the day vividly.

According to him, the march, which was planned by the Action Committee of the Soweto Students Representative Council (SSRC) was well organised and was to be conducted in a peaceful way.

Meeting me at his former school, Modise, beams with pride as he relives the day which ironically accorded around the same time 38 years ago.

“The June mid-year exams were approaching and pupils were getting restless and scared that they would fail the exams if they would have to write in Afrikaans”.

At a meeting called by student leaders on 13 June addressed by one of Morris Isaacson’s most famous sons’ -19-year-old Tsietsi Mashinini and other leaders, it was suggested that the following Wednesday – June 16 – pupils gather in a mass demonstration against Afrikaans.

Modise says the leaders of the original march mainly came from two high schools, Naledi High and Morris Isaacson with the main centre of organisational activity being Phefeni Junior Secondary, close to Vilakazi Street in Orlando.

The plan was that students from Naledi High were to march from their direction and pick up students from other schools on their way while at Morris Isaacson students were to march from their school doing the same, until they met at a central point where they would proceed peacefully together to  Orlando Stadium.

Once at the stadium, the plan was to agree on a list of grievances, and then possibly proceed to the offices of the Transvaal department of education in Booysens, in Johannesburg's southern suburbs.

“Our parents and teachers were never told about the demonstration and the fear was they will upset our students’ plans.”

The morning of the 16th

On the morning of June 16, he recalls the assembly bell had rung at the usual time at Morris Isaacson.

“But as the students gathered - led by Tsietsi Mashinini - they broke into song: "Masibulele ku Jesu, ngokuba wasifela" [Let us thank Jesus, for He died for us] without waiting for deputy headmaster Norman Malebane, who had been walking to the assembly, to conduct morning prayers. We then sang "Nkosi Sikelel iAfrika" [God bless Africa], and marched out of the school grounds into Mphuthi Street, leaving our startled teachers behind.”

Carrying their placards with the words “Down with Afrikaans, "Viva Azania "and "If we must do Afrikaans, Vorster must do Zulu" the group passed by other schools where they recruited other learners to join the march on the spot.

“We were singing and it was jovial, the mood was exciting and with the placards we started going. The guys had made placards the previous night - I personally did not make one but most of my friends and class mates made some,” he recalls.

As the number of learners from different schools, swelled - police were called in.

Along the way, on Mofolo Bridge, a dip through one of the many wetlands of the township, the crowd was halted again by the police.

This is where some people helped Mashinini climb up onto a tractor so that everyone could see him when he addressed the crowd of learners.

The 19-year-old Mashinini who has been labelled "an extremely powerful speaker" encouraged them to slow down and wait for other groups of schoolchildren who were lagging behind.

He told the crowds: “Brothers and Sisters, I appeal to you-keep calm and cool. We have just received a report that the police are coming. Don't taunt them, don't do anything to them. Be cool and calm. We are not fighting."

From there, all roads led to Orlando West High.

And Modise says this is where all hell broke loose.

“At Orlando West High, the students were writing an Afrikaans paper and we came in and created chaos. We took the books and around that time that is when the police arrived and congregated open veld opposite Orlando West High were they formed a wall facing the pupils.”

It was a tense moment for both the police and the students with the police trying to address them with a loud hailer telling them to disperse .But that order was met with resistance.

“Police dogs were released and the brave guys among us started stubbing the dogs and we started stoning the police and teargas was fired into the crowd. For the first time in my life I heard the word ‘teargas’ which we started inhaling”.

In the chaos, children ran back and forth, throwing stones at the police – who fired more teargas and live ammunition.

“Things just got out of hand after that because some of the brave among us started charging police with dustbin lids trying to protect themselves from being shot. And police started shooting live ammunition. I could see one learner falling and all hell broke loose.”

In his mind, Modise says there was fear and confusion as he tried to understand why police had to shoot at young people who were raising genuine concerns.

It was in this mist, that 13-year-old Peterson fell to the ground, fatally wounded.

But Modise believes there was a first casualty before Peterson- a fifteen-year-old Hastings Ndlovu, although he died later. But no photographer was on hand to record the moment.

It’s believed that some 200 Soweto learners lost their lives on the day and hundreds were injured.

Soweto on fire

Anger at the senseless killings inspired retaliatory action in communities.

As night fell, the dark township became even more terrifying: blinded by the night, police simply fired into the blackness.

“The students returned fire with their own weapons, bottles and stones, and the township was littered with upturned vehicles and stones and thick clouds of black smoke hung over Soweto.”

 “Soweto was a township on fire. But our parents were happy and they were proud… they feared the government but they wanted it to be taken down - so they encouraged us.”

The clashes continued, between police and students, joined by street gangs. Violence spread to another volatile Johannesburg township, Alexandra, and then across South Africa.

By 18 June, all schools in Soweto and Alexandra had been closed by the authorities.

But according to Modise, many took the initiative upon themselves to study.

“From the news, we learned that the unrest had spread as far as Mabobane , Kwathema , Duduza, Sibaza – all in solidarity with us”.

More than 20 years into South Africa’s democracy, the anniversary of the "Soweto Uprising" - now officially known as South African Youth Day - is commemorated in marches and rallies throughout the country.

These days, Modise says he normally comes to the school to educate the learners about the day or meet with his former class mates to reminisce about the day and where the country is today.

Although the day is usually seen as another holiday- Modise who is a financial planner believes that the day still carries meaning even to the youth of today.

“It is June 16 which politicised the whole country about resistance. It will be a day that will forever be a turning point for the struggle of our country,” Modise says adding that the blood shed then was not in vein.

“The day should be seen as a commemorative and celebrate that we actually succeeded. But also to highlight the challenges of the day and as youth identify the struggles they can take up and make sure that the country in the long term succeeds.”