“It was as if the world was coming to an end”
Activist Sibongile Mkhabela and two journalists, Ndumiso Mzileni and Duma Ka Ndlovu recall the traumatic events of June 1976 that have been etched into our collective memory, the unjustifiable violence used by apartheid police, and the strength and defiance of black South Africans who stood together, willing to sacrifice their lives for the freedom of our country.
“There’s more to June 16 than the actual day. In order to understand June 16, you need to understand what happened before June 16,” said Ndumiso Mike Mzileni, who covered the uprisings as a photo journalist for Drum Magazine in 1976.
“There was an organisation of medical students, who moved away from an organisation of white students, called the South African Students Organisation (SASO). It was founded in Wentworth before there was Medunsa. Now SASO was a student organisation, it was not a political organisation. That was the organisation of Steve Biko. They started politicising the community in three groups: one group was SASO, which was mainly for university students, the other group was the South African Student Movement (SASM), which was nicknamed ‘amaZimzim’ in township lingo, and another for ordinary people called the Black People’s Convention (BPC). These all fell under the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM).”
Mzileni explained that there was a vacuum in the black political space at the time, owing to the banning of the ANC and the PAC. The teachings of Steve Biko and the BCM filled the gap as high school students, started to become concientised and highly politicised.
“Out of this SASO there was a student from Turfloop, which was one of the strongholds of the BCM, who was expelled after a speech he made during graduation. His name was Onkgopotse Tiro. When he was expelled he went to teach at Morris Isaacson High School in Soweto. So, that is where now the Tsietsi Mashinini’s came from. They were influenced by the BCM in high schools throughout Soweto. It was spreading all over.
At the time, Mzileni was working on a story about student reactions to the decision by government to use Afrikaans as the medium of instruction in schools, the very decision by the apartheid state that fuelled the rage of students.“This Afrikaans had become a problem for the students. A lot of people, including Desmond Tutu, had a problem with that. We were following this story and then all we needed were photos to go along with it. Our editor at that time, Stan Motjuwadi, had given me this responsibility.”
Mzileni visited a number of schools in Soweto including Isaac Morrison High, Orlando West High, famously known as Matseke, and eMthonjeni Lower Primary School. This is where he witnessed the ‘explosive’ mood of students. There were notes placed outside school gates which read: “SB (security branch) enter at your own risk”. At one of the schools a car was burning and teachers spoke to journalists about how angry the students were. A meeting was called on Sunday, 13 June 1976, where it was decided that students would march, from every corner of Soweto, to rally at Orlando Stadium. Tsietsi Mashinini was elected as one the leaders for the march.
Mzileni was a 24 year old journalist at the time and had never covered a protest before.
“Because we were a magazine, we were not aware that the meeting had taken place on Sunday and we were not even aware of what was going to happen that day. So, on that morning, 16 June 1976, I was preparing to go to work as usual. I happened to see some placards from students who were around my neighbourhood, Dube Village, and decided to follow them in my Volkswagen.
“As I joined them, the leadership of that group approached me and pleaded that I don’t take pictures of individuals because they did not want to be identified by the police.” This is when he took his iconic photo of students holding placards which read ‘To hell with Afrikaans’.
“I then followed them organising, which you youngsters refer to as ‘mobilise’ these days. They also went to one of the schools telling young ones not to follow them because they were not sure what would happen to them. They were coming from all the corners of the township.”
Mzileni paused as he recalled arriving at one of the numerous sites of protest, and the moment a young thirteen year old became a symbol of youth resistance.
“The roads now were full. From Ncube the protest was moving towards Orlando West. When we got to Maponya, which was not far from Orlando West High, my car attracted unpopular attention. Some youngsters approached me and advised me not to go further beacause the same kind of car was used by the Criminal Investigation Department (CID), it was easily presumed as a government car. So, I left my car and walked down to Matseke. A whole lot of other things had already happened. A white man was already dead, a Chinese doctor was trapped inside a clinic, students were all over and at that point Hector Pieterson had already been shot.”
“The students then approached a bridge, now called Hastings Ndlovu, connecting Orlando East to Orlando West because they wanted to cross that bridge to go to Orlando stadium. Across the bridge there were police who were standing there. Whilst they were negotiating things got heated and around 13:00 the police were refusing the students to pass and tensions grew.”
“In my opinion that is when the uprising started because when those kids turned back, all hell broke loose. I still believe if they hadn’t stopped them there would be no June 16.”
Mzileni recalls that even though the march was the ‘first of its kind’, no one expected the brutal violence and inhuman treatment of the young students at the hands of police.
“Students had never organised this way. The students were anti-white, angry, they were politicised and highly militant.”
Mzileni had a vital message for contemporary journalists covering protests today.
“As a journalist you’re the mirror of the public. You are the watchdog of the underdogs. The public can’t go and analyse everything. That is why they pay for newspapers and magazines, to be informed. They rely on you as a journalist, their mirror and messenger to report to them.”
“You must do that honestly and truthfully. That is why you need to double check your facts when someone gives you a story. It is no longer journalism when you publish one sided stories. Journalism is about facts and you need to be honest to the people you are writing to because they trust you.”
“There was a revolution in the streets”
On the days leading to the uprisings Duma Ka Ndlovu, who was 21 years old at the time, was in Soweto working as a journalist for the only black daily newspaper in the country, The World, he was also a BCM activist. “I was part of the leadership at that time. I started my political activities when I was 16 or 17 years old and I was a member of SASM, which was very active in high school. Steve Biko’s name was up in the air and the conscientisation process had started.
Ndlovu, went to Sekano Ntoane High School, and said his teachers played a role in conscientising him and his peers. “They said certain things that brought certain things to perspective and made made you understand that black man you have nothing to lose but the chains of your slavery. You are on your own. This helped you know how to tell white people off, that you didn’t have time for them and how to act towards other black people. There were a lot of positive images of black people that went around in the communities. Those in the arts knew their poetry needed to speak in a particular voice, so did the musicians and by 1974 there was almost no person touched by BCM who used skin lightening cream.”
At the time, he was looking to shift the narrative of black South Africans through his writing.
“The state journalism had to be changed. We were at the forefront. I’m one of the people who approached Percy Gqoboza and our editorial to say to them that we can’t continue to have stories about blood baths and black people killing each other over the weekend on our front pages on Monday. We told them that we needed to write positive stories. I was one of the journalists who started writing about the terror trials of the day. These became our front pages. The narrative started changing and the spirit of BC started showing. Even the churches started preaching black theology. The advent of BC that started in the late 60s had born fruits in us by 1974 because we were now the foot soldiers. By 1976 it exploded in the streets”
Ndlovu found out about June 16 through a relationship he had with students in Soweto.
“I used to write a column in the weekend World called ‘Duma Ndlovu’s Schools Sport’. Every Wednesday I used to go to Soweto to cover games in the high schools. I had a double spread in the weekend. Students knew when they saw me that their school would be in the newspaper. This made me some celebrity of the time.”
This trust relationship gained Ndlovu the scoop on what the students were planning. “On days leading to June 16, when they were organising the marches, they came to my house and told me that something big would happen and that I should come with a photographer. They wouldn’t say what though. They just wanted me to come over. I told this to my editor.”
But on June 16 he was assigned to cover the official opening of an orphanage in Orlando and his editor refused to send him to Soweto despite his knowledge of the protest. “Around 10am things exploded in Soweto. I called the office and asked them what they think I should do. They told me to leave everything and go to Orlando West.”
Ndlovu and fellow journalist, Gabu Tugwana, were at the heart of the uprising and got stories from the students first hand. “It was much easier for me to interact and get information because I knew the students. They were not hostile to me. They were hostile to the general media and other reporters were not able to get any information. I was able to start talking to them immediately and get interviews because it was friendly territory to me. For the next month or two, we were at the centre and the main repository for information. We were part of the inner circle and the engine that was driving June 16. I was their political senior, giving them direction and gave them the name, Soweto Students Representative Council”.
Ndlovu narrates the tragic events as if it all happened yesterday.
“I had never seen anything like that before. There was fire, there was smoke, there were bullets and there were police. There was excitement. There were students throwing stones and there was bravery. It was as if the world was coming to an end, not only apartheid. We had never seen anything like that before. You didn’t know that you would wake up tomorrow and think that there would be a country. There were machine guns and helicopters. There was a revolution in the streets. White people came and started shooting left, right and centre. You did not know if they were going to come back with bombs. It was crazy. It was crazy,” he said.
“At one time I went to Orlando police station and all kinds of dead bodies were lying on the floor. The funny thing is that you went ahead and said our blood will nurture the tree that will bring freedom. They can’t stop us. This brought up some sort of bravery.”
Ndlovu almost lost his life that day. One of the policemen had mistaken him for one of the leaders of the student uprising, Tsietsi Mashinini.
“At some point we picked up [Tsietsi Mashinini], running from one place to another. I was in a car with him, a driver and a photographer. Then, out of nowhere he stopped us and asked us to drop him off. He was very intuitive because three minutes later our car was stopped by police. They were probably told that he was in the car. They dragged me out of the car thinking I was Tsietsi. They were taking me to a police van. I kept on telling them that I was a journalist, here is my press card but he didn’t give a hoot. He took out his gun and pointed it at me. I said to him ‘shoot’. I said ‘shoot’.
At that point, a number of people saw what was happening and ultimately saved his life.
“A group of people started approaching us. It was Desmond Tutu, Winnie Mandela, Dr Buthelezi and Dr Matlala. I don’t know where they were coming from but they told him this man is a journalist. So the confused white policeman let me go.
Ndlovu was left traumatised after the incident “For weeks this stayed on my mind. How can I tell a person who is putting a gun on my face to shoot? It was the heat of the moment.”
To him, until young people bring back the spirit of June 16 they will never go anywhere. “They don’t need to do what we did. The spirit of June 16 said black people had to be on their own. Black person you’ve got nothing to lose but the chains of your slavery,” he said.
“People must remember that they, themselves, took off their chains”
Sibongile Mkhabela is a former student leader who played a crucial role in the Soweto Uprising. As a teenager she was an executive member of the Soweto Students Representative Council (SSRC) and General Secretary of the SASM, and the only woman in the leadership group. She insists that June 16 was not about any individual students, they were fighting for ‘the collective’, a way of thinking that she attributes to the elders in the community, who she believes are often left out of the narrative.
“That attitude was as a result of our high levels of political education (not party education). We were privileged youngsters in that older people including university students, church leaders, many township youth leaders, women’s organizations, took a keen interest in our holistic education. This is often the missing piece in the telling of the story,” she said.
She remembers the morning of June 16 as a ‘beautiful cold winter’s day’ as students sang songs from South African musicians like Miriam Makeba and Letta Mbulu.
“We must have had a huge dose of adrenalin because we were aware of how potentially dangerous the situation was yet there was a light heartedness as we sang and marched. The song that never leaves me to this day is the rendition of ‘Senzeni Na?’ after news of the first shootings went through the crowds of confused, teary youngsters.”
Mkhabela is now the CEO of the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund. During a recent interview on SAFM, she talked about the importance of the wider community in Soweto on that particular day.
“My June 16 is full of mamas and papas, is full of the women that we ran to when we were running from Regina Mundi, chased by police, we ran into their homes and they defended us. It’s full of the woman who particularly got out of her house when the police were in her yard and they knew a number of us had run into her house. She stood up and said ‘you’re not touching a hair out of any of these children while I’m here, you have to go through me and if you want the kids you’re going to have to take me first’. I don’t know her name, I don’t know who she was, but I know she is part of my context at that time and she’s part of what made it possible,” she said, and stressed the role of teachers and community activists in the youth movement.
“The teachers conscientised us. Those of us who did history as a subject knew that we had to contend with two streams and in our brains we had to separate these things but remember them. We had to remember the history that we wrote for examination, and we had to remember the history of who we were. It took teachers who were interested to say for the exams, I want you to write the following facts. Now for life, and for who you are, I want you to remember who you are. This is where Shaka fits in to your history, this is 1652 hapening, this is the taking over of your country. So your conscientisation and your politicisation started in the classroom but it continued because the teachers cared enough about the kind of kids we were to become, or the kind of leaders we were to become.”
Following the protests, Mkhabela was arrested and charged, with sedition in what became known as the Soweto 11 trial. Of the 11 student leaders arrested, she was the only woman. She was imprisoned for three years and tortured. She was first sent to the Fort Hare prison in Hillbrow, and then Kroonstad prison in the Free State. Her personal story of the Soweto Uprising is captured in her book Open Earth and Black Roses, and she continuously encourages black South Africans to tell their own narrative of freedom, using storytelling as an essential and powerful tool to remember and celebrate the spirit of defiance of the past.
“[P]eople must remember that they themselves took off the chains, our narrative at the moment is that a liberation movement took off your chains. Liberation movements are not there without people making decisions for themselves. I did not sit in prison because a liberation movement said to me I should, I would not have survived. When I went down into prison when finally we were convicted after our trial…I went down there saying: my flesh you will have, my body you will have, my spirit you will never touch and it’s that spirit that is moulded by ordinary people in townships and leaders who cared and that you can’t touch… The danger is, if people don’t know, don’t remember that they freed themselves, they will always be looking for a messiah to free them,” she said.
Listen to Mkhabela’s full interview here.
MIKE MZILENI BIOGRAPHY
Mike Mzileni started his photographic career in 1963. He joined the black iconic newspaper, The World, in 1964. In 1967, he worked for various Johannesburg- based publications including The Golden City Post, Drum Magazine, The Sunday Express and The Sunday Times. In 1982 when he was appointed chief photographer of The Golden City Press, now City Press. He retired from City Press in 2000 to pursue his career as a freelance photographer. Mzileni was born in Berlin, near East London in the Eastern Cape in 1942. He moved up to Johannesburg at the age of 10, where he was educated and started his photographic career. Mzileni was featured in a World Photo Competition in The Hague Netherlands, in 1966 and in 1985 he was named JPS Sports photographer of the year. His contribution to photography was acknowledged when he was appointed a judge in the 1996 and 2002 Fuji Photo Press Awards.
DUMA NDLOVU BIOGRAPHY
Duma Ndlovu is a South African writer and producer whose career has spanned three decades in the creative arts. A graduate of Hunter College in New York, he cut his teeth in the literary world with his theatrical contributions, concentrating largely on writing plays with a social message. This was inspired by the fact that he came of age during the turbulent years when Agitprop, (agitation propaganda theatre) was the order of the day. He was hugely influenced by the theatre of Gibson Kente and the teachings of Steven Bantu Biko and made it his challenge to fuse the work of these two giants into his literature and dramatic work. His collection of South African plays; WOZA AFRIKA, was published in New York by George Braziller publishers in 1987 and he is currently working on another anthology of South African theatre that includes interviews with some of the luminaries of the theatre. Mr. Ndlovu’s dramas have always spoken of the experiences of the marginalised and the underdog, and through his writings he has sought to inspire and challenge.
SIBONGILE MKHABELA BIOGRAPHY
A mover and a shaker of a kind, Sibongile (Bongi) Mkhabela is a change agent with known and felt activism in the public, private and development sector of South African society’s life-changing endeavours. The abiding sprit that keeps refreshing vision-direction in these endeavours derives unchanging commitment from the promotion of a child-rights movement. Appointed Chief Executive Officer (CEO if the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund (NMCF) in 2001, not only has she been instrumental in growing the children’s fun endowment but also in captaining the navigation of its strategic direction until 2010. A Joel L. Fleishman Civil Society Fellow at Duke University, North Carolina, USA, has an honours degree in Social Work from the university of Zululand and several graduate diplomas, and has completed various management courses through the University of Witwatersrand Business School. Her work in senior positions at the United Nations Development Programme, United Nations Education Programme in South Africa and South African Council of Churches added to her wealth of experience on development isssues.
Illustration by Sarah Rose de Villiers.