Soweto June 1976: A Journalist Remembers

A winter like no other

The Soweto uprisings of June 1976 turned the tide against apartheid. A groundswell that spelled the end of a system of legalised racism. But for those who were there at the time it was just another day in a cold and brutal country. This is an adapted extract from a non-fiction book, The Keeper of the Kumm, that will be published by Tafelberg next year. The book is the meta narrative for a musical theatre adaptation and a feature length documentary film in development.

I arrive in Johannesburg on the last day of a freezing May in 1976. I feel small, lost and frightened in the vast Jan Smuts airport surrounded by white officials.

“You take the non-white bus to town and from there you ask anyone how to get to Bree Street. Next…”

The woman at the information counter hardly looks at me as she spits out the information.

I am in Joburg for the first time to do the Argus Company’s Cadet Journalism training course for six months at the Star newspaper. There is no one to greet me or tell me how to get to the hotel.

When I ask a couple of black workers for help with the directions they speak Zulu. An old woman mopping the floor says; “You must be from Cape Town.”

It is more an accusation than confirmation of my origin. I have hardly been in the city for an hour and already I’m guilty of unwitting transgressions with no hope of redemption.

Having fun in the Cape Herald studio with colleague Shen Coleman summer 1976

Having fun in the Cape Herald studio with colleague
Shen Coleman summer 1976

The Bosmont Island

“Your room is on the first floor. Please do not leave the heater on when you go out. Dinner is in an hour,” says the receptionist at the exclusively coloured Bosmont Hotel.

My insides glow at the thought of a heater and a hot meal. Since leaving the airport the temperature has dropped to almost zero. An icy wind announces the arrival of a winter’s night unlike any I’ve known until now.

Bosmont is an urban island where marginally better off coloured people with facebrick homes and sedan cars keep a safe distance from their working class cousins. Down the road is Newclare and on the other side is Riverlea and Westbury. Across the highway is Soweto. Desperate places whose names give no clue to their real identity.

My room at the Bosmont Hotel at the end of a short passage overlooks a mine dump. Everything smells of detergent and the carpet is so filthy the garish geometric details have long since been obliterated.

“No visitors, no music after 10 pm and no cooking in the rooms,” says a sign on the back of the door.

The ‘heater’ is a small asbestos pad, the size of a large envelope, attached to the wall. I sit very close to it until it’s time for supper and leave it on when I go and eat, feeling guilty.

‘Dinner’ is two thick chunks of white bread, a piece of meat, potatoes a thin brown gravy and pap.

I am the only woman and the men look at me in that way that men do when they cannot be bothered with the social nicety of masking lust. Travellers pausing briefly between bites to size up the meat at the next table. I’m hungry but cannot stomach the oily gravy, dicey meat and stodge.

Walking out of the hotel and across a field to the bus stop in the morning, my shoes make sharp cracking sounds. Crunch crunch go the icicles that have enveloped each blade of grass during the night. My mini skirt and Cape Town raincoat is no match for the demands of the Highveld morning on June 1st 1976.

47 Sauer Street

Egoli’s frosty welcome is replaced by a glow of pride as I enter the Star building on downtown Sauer Street. I was born in the year the ANC launched the Defiance Campaign against apartheid. It was a time when white people celebrated three Centuries of Jan van Riebeeck’s arrival at the Cape. Now here I am finding a place for myself at 47 Sauer Street, an address that sits at the top of the media hierarchy in my young book. I am an hour early, eager to step into my new role of Cadet Journalist, so I follow the signs to the staff canteen.

“Anchovy toast on whole-wheat bread and coffee please.”

When my order comes I wonder vaguely why it’s in take-away packaging but I’m too filled with a sense of occasion to pay much attention to this subtle and very South African red flag. Sitting down at an empty table, I’m vaguely aware of some movement. At the far corner of the room a group of men in blue overalls get up to leave.

“The works guys getting ready to run the first edition,” I say to myself, proud that I am part of this world of words, ink and printing presses. Proud that already I know so much about the process of producing a newspaper.

The morning is a series of introductions… Teachers, young journalists and the Principal Les Dunn, a tall World War II veteran with a sense of humour only the white kids understand, shake hands and talk about themselves. The class has 14 cadets and only two of us are black.

Covering UCT protest-against black students requiring permits, late 70s

Covering UCT protest-against black students requiring permits, late 70s

Joburg Is Different

“Sylvia please won’t you come to my office. There’s something we need to discuss.”

“Day one and already Les Dunn has noticed my potential,” I tell myself.

He is well into an awkward monologue full of white speak before I realise that this is no special welcome routine.

“This is not Cape Town. You have to understand Joburg is different. If it were up to the Editor he’d open the canteen tomorrow but… Their union is very powerful. It pains me to tell you this. Please don’t do it again. We almost didn’t have a newspaper today.”

So, I was being singled out all right. And yes, I have exceptional abilities… I have almost caused a strike in the print room. The blue overall men who were in the canteen this morning are threatening to down tools until they are given an assurance by the Editor that I will never ever sit down in the white section again.

“Hey don’t worry about the canteen, wait until they arrest you on your way to work and you don’t even know why. Are you done with the phone I need to call my girlfriend,” says Don Manaka the only other black trainee.

Don is almost twice my age, the oldest person in the class. He spends most of his free time on the school telephone, talking with his girlfriend in Mafikeng.

“This school used to be for the white kids only. Then we made a fuss. Now to pay us back they’re sending all the black senior people from the World newspaper. Percy was here last year.”

Percy Qoboza is the Editor of the World, South Africa’s largest black newspaper. I have difficulty imagining this man whom I’ve admired from a distance sitting here amongst a group of young trainees.

“Argus company policy means they rant against apartheid in editorials but meanwhile back in the newsrooms the set up is racist and they have no intention of changing it. I only come here because the phone calls are free and it’s a nice break from the newsroom.”

For the next half year Don Manaka takes care of my real education. He shows me magical places to eat in Diagonal Street, helps me make friends with the journalists at the World newspaper and introduces me to a few people in the anti-apartheid struggle underground.

Learning More On the Streets

The Argus Cadet Journalism School at the Star newspaper is only mildly engaging. I learn so much more when I step outside the stuffy building at 47 Sauer Street, Johannesburg.

Except for the canteen, there are few signs. They don’t need it. Everyone here knows their place.

“Your hotel is far too expensive. The company cannot afford to keep you there for the duration of the course.”

I’m sitting in the offices of the Star’s management. The clerk looking at me has managed to make me feel like a little kid. I don’t have the confidence to tell him that I don’t know anyone in Joburg and have no clue how and where to start looking for accommodation.

“It’s costing us more than R 300 a month and…”

I stop listening. I’m too young to question why this smug young clerk is dumping the abuse that is apartheid at my doorstep. Nervously I accept that it’s my responsibility to find a solution. The R 300 figure sticks in my head. I leave his office with a scheme brewing that takes the edge off the discomfort and anger.

“Hey Gia if I rented a room with your friend Anver how much would he charge me?”

Jeffrey “Gia” van Buuren is a renowned Coronationville hairdresser. He is an old friend of a friend and the only person I know in all of Joburg. He holds the brush and hairdryer as if they are castanets and stands with his long legs at an odd angle. Gia, as most people know him, goes for Spanish dancing lessons to a white woman in Hillbrow.

“He’ll probably let you have it for free. One day when you’re a famous journalist you can pay us all back.”

I spend most weekends and evenings in Gia’s hairdresser. He always makes sure the clients know I’m a journalist, studying at Joburg’s prestigious Star newspaper. If he’s in a good mood he lets me shampoo people’s hair and pass him the rollers. At night he allows me to drive his car and we hit the nightspots of Soweto. Our favourite is Lucky’s Pelican nightclub in Orlando. Gia pays for me everywhere, repeating the same sentence about becoming famous and returning the favour.

Anver Saferdien is Gia’s friend who has just moved into a house in Doornfontein, an old part of the city that is somewhere between trendy and rundown. The white people have left and although black people are not allowed to stay there the police turn a blind eye because the absentee landlords can charge black people more and do even less to maintain their properties.

“I’m glad you’ve found a place. We will pay Mr Saferdien by cheque every month and you can collect it here from my office,” says the Star management clerk a few days later. He has been assigned to deal with my accommodation “issue”. He agrees on R 120 a month for my rent. It is slightly more than my monthly salary and a fortune by my standards.

The Star Funds Our Entertainment

The Star rent money ends up in a kitty that funds everything from our weekend entertainment, to plane trips home and even an excursion to Botswana. We are rich!

For the rest I struggle to adapt and it shows. Wherever I go I feel like I’m treading water in a whirlpool.


I am in the lift going back to the Cadet Journalism School. A smiling man is asking me how I am. I panic each time strangers talk with me in isiZulu or any other local language. Even if I do the basic ‘ngiyaphila I’m fine’ reply, the next flood of sentences is what I fear. I can take a gamble and smile sweetly until the doors open or I can take a risk.

“I don’t understand,” I say when he starts the inevitable conversation.

Sometimes when I admit I don’t speak any indigenous languages other than Afrikaans, people ask:

“Where are you from?”

“Cape Town.”


The word always sounds like an attack. The subtext is all about being coloured and more privileged. About not speaking local languages because the people of the Western Cape don’t seriously oppose apartheid and trust the Afrikaners more than their fellow black South Africans. There’s a lot more but that’s the gist of it.

The man in the lift looks me up and down with disgust.

“Why don’t you want to speak Zulu!”

“It’s not that ….”

The lift opens. He gets out without looking back. I am left to finish my sentence silently.

I once went to isiXhosa lessons and everyone laughed at me when I started to speak. It became a party trick in the townships.

“Ask Sylvia to say something from isiLumko (the text book).”

Language Bigots

People laugh even if I ask them their names. They ask me to repeat simple childlike sentences over and over. My accent is all wrong and the grammar is way too proper.

When a white person is learning to talk an African language the baby steps are charming but when a black person is going through the same experience it simply sounds hilarious.

So, I learn to accept my daily brushes with the language bigots. But today the lift man does not get me down. I am rich and I’m going home. The flight to Cape Town is R 90 a return and now I can afford to go home at least once a month. My friends in Cape Town assume my newfound jet setting is owing to a generous journalism school stipend. The white cadet journalists assume that just like them I have rich parents who send me air tickets regularly.

When I return to Joburg I settle down to my new life in this overwhelming city. I’m adopted by a group of journalists on Percy Qoboza’s World newspaper and secret meetings become the order of the day.

There is a slight feeling of being sought after. A coloured girl hanging around with stylish black guys from the coolest newspaper in town. I have no idea that the stone throwing in the streets, the burning barricades that we inch past at night and the underground gatherings will be written into history as the Soweto Uprisings, the beginning of the end of apartheid.

“Where are you going?”

Lucky Michaels, the owner of Soweto’s Pelican nightclub is reputed to have a wife in every suburb of Johannesburg, black and white. He sits on the stoep of a house I am passing on the way to the Journalism School at the Star. Lucky dates mostly white and coloured women. It makes him stand out but it’s not a distinction we talk about ever. A nightclub owner with a fair skinned woman is cool, no question.

“Sauer Street,” I say hoping he is going to offer a lift, in return for the money I spend in the Pelican at weekends.

“You are going to work on a day like today! There is a strike. Watch out, you’ll get hurt.”

I wave a hand in his direction and keep going. At the Cadet School the only other black person on the course, Don Manaka is absent. Muff Andersson rushes out of class. Her brother Gavin has been detained. I feel like a traitor. Even the white people around me are standing up for what they believe in.

The next time there is a call for strike action I don’t only stay away, I also quit classes for a while and go home to Cape Town again to see if my homeys are showing solidarity with the students of Soweto.

Rioting Coloured Youth

I am proud to the point of being silly when I go home one weekend and there are protests in the streets. Coloured kids being shot and running from teargas just like in Soweto.

My half year in Joburg in 1976 fills huge gaps in my political education.

“Here you must read this,” says poet Don Mattera who is banned from working as a journalist so he spends his days subbing silly little stories for the Star and his spare time educating people like me.

“Have you heard of James Baldwin?”

I shake my head and take the book he has inscribed to me. After reading Go Tell It On the Mountain, Bra Don talks with me like an equal. He gives me more books, some of them banned. Marcus Garvey, WEB du Bois and Richard Rive my old high school teacher. I feel I’ve undergone some kind of rite of passage. Living in Johannesburg I feel a sense of belonging in Africa for the very first time in my life.

I don’t mind that I am berated, sometimes several times a day, for not being able to get past simple greetings in any of the indigenous languages. This has never happened to me my hometown. In Cape Town people assume I am coloured and speak only English and Afrikaans. But now that my Afro looms large my racial ambiguity in the South African scheme of things has taken me a bit by surprise.

One day I am journeying from Cape Town via Joburg to Swaziland to visit a friend. A Xhosa woman at the airport attacks me in the morning, a Zulu man in a Joburg café insults me in the afternoon and a Swazi cashier at a pharmacy in Mbabane lays into me just before sunset. I tell the surprised cashier the story of having started my journey this morning in Cape Town.

“And all through the day there has been somebody attacking me for not speaking their language. I suppose it’s my fault that I look like I belong everywhere.”

Later in my life the same thing happens in other parts of Africa and always it makes me feel good to be mistaken for a local wherever I go.

When I graduate I feel like telling the Principal of the Cadet School, Les Dunn a war veteran who hardly ever acknowledges my existence, that I learned a thousand times more about journalism on the streets of Joburg, and from Bra Don Materra or the people who took me under their wing at the World newspaper than I did in the Star building in Sauer Street.

I Almost Made It

Back home in Cape Town finally I feel out of place. As if my hometown has shrunk and no longer fits me. The Editor of the Cape Herald newspaper calls me into his office. I am no longer a cadet but an apprentice serving two years with the Argus company because they spent so much money training me.

“I am going to show you these confidential records,” says the Editor Tony Richmond, “because you came so close to winning the Olleman’s Trophy.”

He shows me a simple spreadsheet with all the names of all the Cadet School journalists I have just left behind. My name is second on the list after the son of an assistant editor at The Argus. Richmond explains that the scores we were given are confidential but that I almost ended up with the top marks and the floating trophy.

“There were just two points separating you from the top guy,” says a rather naïve Tony Richmond.

I didn’t learn much at that Cadet School but got to understand that the chances of the Argus company giving their trophy for most promising young journalist to a black woman when they were still involved in the racism of forcing the esteemed Percy Qoboza back to primary school, was highly unlikely.

Copyright Sylvia Vollenhoven.