The year 1976 will always be remembered as the year when the schoolchildren of Soweto rose up against Apartheid education. Interestingly, it was also the year when television first came to South Africa.
ENCA television anchor, Freek Robinson was a junior reporter at the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) television at the time. He recalled that at the end of the first day of the uprising on June 16, 1976, the newsroom was fully aware that the schoolchildren were marching against Afrikaans in Soweto.
“It was known throughout the world” he said. The next day, he and a cameraman set off to Soweto. They had to stop in town to first get a permit to enter the township. In those days, white people could not enter any township without first alerting the authorities. The permit office then alerted the local police in Soweto and the drill was to first check in at the station.
They made their way through police roadblocks and headed for the station. Before they reached there, they found themselves driving towards a group of pupils. “The next thing a brick came flying through the window straight into the cameraman,” he said. “ He was bleeding. We turned around and with the help of a black policeman was able to get away.”
Management at the SABC decided not to let the young reporter go into the field again. “It was a very traumatic experience,” he said.
His sense was that in the first weeks of the uprising, the SABC freely covered the events but slowly restrained itself as it came to the conclusion that the coverage was adding fuel to the fire. “I did not get the sense at first that people were ordered what to cover,” he said.
Independent researcher Gail Berhmann provided a list of some of the shots that were used during those months. Time did not allow for viewing of the full 81 minutes of film archived at the SABC in Johannesburg. On the list of over 40 scenes, the images are not too varied and definitely gave no sense of agency to the protestors. Here follows her descriptions of five of the clips.
00:28:05:05 armed police in the township – note the shanties in the background
00:28:41:19 people boarding bus under police watch. Interior crammed with people and an armed policeman who rides with the bus
00:29:07:21 brief shot of women waiting to board bus. Bus is marked Parkmore, a very wealthy white suburb bus on its way to city. Shots of burnt out and shattered buildings
00:29:25:10 sound SABC cameraman at the back of a police patrol vehicle, much laughter, armed policeman randomly shoots at group of people.
00:29:46:00 helicopter in the air
“It is fairly clear from the footage that the SABC were both embedded with police and working on their own, said Berhmann.
The iconic image that was to go across the whole world was the picture that appeared in Percy Qoboza’s newspaper, the World on June 17, 1976. The photographer, Sam Nzima told the story to Yadhana Jadoo of The Citizen newspaper.
Nzima was 38 years old and armed with a small camera joined the marching scholars that morning. When the shooting started he ran for cover but then carefully made his way back to observe the events. It was then that he witnessed the shooting of Hector Pieterson, the first death of hundreds that would follow. In front of him was the image of a young Mbuyisa Makhubu carrying the bleeding Pieterson in his arms. Besides him was Pieterson’s sister, Antoinette Sithole. Click. Click. He took the picture that remains the iconic symbol of that dramatic day and known across the world.
It was not without consequences for him. His work at The World was soon to come to an abrupt end. After death threats and impending detention, he decided it was best to go back home to his village of Lillydale in Bushbuckridge, Mpumalanga near Nelspruit. The Nelspruit’s security branch arrived at his door and slapped him with an 18-month house arrest order effectively preventing him from working as a journalist. Today he still lives there hanging onto his prized possession: an old Pentax camera with a standard 50mm lens. It has taken years for him to secure copyright to the photograph.
By the time the protests ran its course across the country for a few months, more than a thousand would be dead. (See extract from John Matisonn’s book, God, Spies and Lies which sketches the broader context of the unprecedented events)
Veteran journalist, Sylvia Vollenhoven who joined the SABC post 1994, produced a documentary in 2008 called “Getting away with murder”. The docudrama is a tough look at the role the apartheid media played in gross human rights.
“Journalists had to withhold information and in some cases tell lies,” said Vollenhoven. “Distorting access to information was a gross violation of human rights as it contributed to create a surreal semblance of normality during the bad old days.”
It was a very different time and a very different country. Looking back from the vantage point of 2016, Robinson, who remained at the SABC until 2010, reflected on the years of suppressing the news at the SABC. “It was of no use because the truth will always come out,” he said.
Extract from John Matisonn’s book, God, Spies and Lies
As early as January of 1976, Soweto school boards told government inspectors conflict in the schools was escalating. By May, pupils at Orlando West Junior School went on strike against the use of Afrikaans as a medium of school instruction. This language policy was the brainchild of Dr Andries Treurnicht, deputy minister of Bantu education. Other Soweto schools followed. Signs of trouble were evident, and the government was clearly aware enough to continue beefing up its instruments of repression. On 8 June, security police went to Soweto’s Naledi High School to arrest a student leader. Students stoned them and burnt their car. They left empty-handed and carless. Two days later, the Internal Security Bill, making indefinite detention without trial more widely applicable, passed in parliament. The following day, 11 June, Treurnicht rejected an application from five Soweto schools asking that they not have to implement the new Afrikaans language rule. On 13 June, three days before the uprising began, representatives of all Soweto schools met in Naledi. The meeting was pivotal. A townshipwide Soweto Students’ Representative Council was formed, with two representatives from each Soweto school, and its first task was to organise a protest on 16 June against the use of Afrikaans in education. One person on the Mail knew what was coming. Jan (Gabu) Tugwana is unusually resourceful. As a boy, he’d bought drinks and snacks to resell on station platforms. By his early teens, he’d taken to riding the trains all the way to Durban, selling refreshments in both directions. In 1976 he was 22, hired as a sports writer with basic pay plus a fee per word, close in age to the students planning the march. He’d been transferred to cover the story in Soweto in May, when the tensions were apparent. ‘I knew what was going to happen,’ he told an interviewer years later.
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SLUGGING IT OUT 1966–1990
Gabu knew a big protest march was planned. He ordered a Mail car for early morning on 16 June, giving a ride to some of the students who would act as marshals for the protest march. Tens of thousands of students answered the call. Police opened fire on the young marchers, killing hundreds that day. By the time the protest had spread around the country and run its course a few months later, more than a thousand would be dead. Women later to become prominent were arrested in this period, including Lindiwe Sisulu, Thandi Modise, Mamphela Ramphele and Winnie Mandela, by now well used to jail. Something else happened on 16 June. The Internal Security Act, with new indefinite detention provisions that did not require a state of emergency, was promulgated. The next day, Colin Eglin, the leader of the opposition, requested an extraordinary session of parliament, at which he called for the resignation of Treurnicht and others. As expected, Eglin lost the vote to the overwhelming Nationalist majority. On 18 June, the UN Security Council unanimously condemned Pretoria for the police violence in Soweto and elsewhere.
Vorster, who had said little concrete in response to the upheavals around the country, now said he did not regard the pressures on the country as critical. The uprising spread around the Western Cape, with marches by schoolchildren and University of Western Cape students in solidarity with Soweto; 150,000 to 200,000 workers in Soweto went on strike. Still determined to keep apartheid alive, Vorster sought to cool township tempers by tinkering with forms of representation on local councils. These were announced to the world under the headline: ‘New deal for urban blacks’. The Financial Mail, which contained some astute journalists, took to pinning the front page of The Star on its notice board every time it ran that headline. The tally of front page ‘New Deal for Urban Blacks’ headlines reached close to 30 in this period. None of these plans addressed the basic issue, that all South Africans were in one country, and urban black politicians who participated never attracted serious support. Students in all provinces came out in support of Soweto’s demands: black scholars, black universities, the Coloured and Indian universities, and the English-language white, so-called ‘open’, universities. The protests were segregated, but the demands were much the same. A black consciousness trial continued in Pretoria, where the banned Steve Biko was brought as a defence witness. Biko was clearly the leading thinker of this era. Five white NUSAS leaders were on trial in Johannesburg, charged