Remembering 1976: the Soweto uprising and beyond

Recollections of people who lived through the 1976 Soweto uprising both there and elsewhere provide more authentic insights than those of outside observers. The authors draw vignettes from interviews with struggle veterans conducted in 2013 by an HSRC research team and external researchers for a research project commissioned by the National Heritage Council. Recollections exactly as toldGreg Houston, Mojalefa Dipholo and Nedson Pophiwa

Siphesihle Zulu, a young school student in Durban in 1976:
June 16, it is just quite clear where it came from because there was no other organisation around at that moment; it was the Black Consciousness Movement. In Beatrice Street in Durban, that is where the SASO/BPC [South African Students’ Organisation and the Black People’s Convention] offices were.

When I was a young boy, my uncle who was a pastor, lived in Beatrice Street. So I ended up as a young boy interacting with these people. I would see this tall man, that is, Steve Biko. And there was the short one, Aubrey Mokoape. Before the uprising started I would go there and I would hear them say: ‘On June 16 there is going to be something big that we are organising as an organisation.’ Soweto was going to be the start. And then from Soweto it was going to go to all other parts of the country. So it was really organised. It was not just spontaneous. You can’t just say: ‘All of you wake up and come to such a place to take part in a march’. That’s impossible. Somebody must have been organising it.

The idea was to bring about change as from June 16 onwards; to make sure that everybody was against Afrikaans being pushed down our throats. That was the rallying point... the apartheid regime made a mistake. They gave us something to rally ourselves around.

Mauppasant Mochele, a young student at Morris Isaacson High School in 1976:
I grew up in Dube Village, Soweto, and went to school at Morris Isaacson High School, which was at the centre of the June 1976 student protests... I didn’t belong to any organisation. I was not an activist initially, but I grew up in an area where there were so many things that linked you with the struggle. First of all, it was where many of the previous struggles of the 1960s happened. A number of leaders that had been arrested were from the neighbourhood. We stayed a walking distance from where Mandela used to stay.

As young people we did not know anything about the struggle. What we knew was that we were staying in Soweto. Growing up in that environment meant that people never spoke about certain things… In school there were a lot of things that affected us in terms of what the regime was trying to do. All of a sudden there was this threat of changing subjects to Afrikaans as the official language. The subject itself was a very beautiful language…but as soon as they wanted to change to teaching subjects such as Biology in Afrikaans it became problematic. The issue was bringing about such drastic changes whilst we were in matric. The teachers were also not in favour of it, because they had to undergo retraining at their own expense.

The whole thing began at Morris Isaacson High School. The march grew in size as students joined from other areas. Soon the police arrived, and started shooting the students. Many dispersed, and many were shot and killed. There was chaos in Mfolo, Naledi, Meadowlands, Dube and many other areas in Soweto.

The entire township was supporting us at the time. They offered us water for the teargas, and fat cakes and other refreshments. Journalists were involved as well, reporting on the situation. Some even hid Tsietsi Mashinini and other student leaders... But over time there was a period where there was a lull. However, the soldiers were constantly present. They actually occupied the school premises and were monitoring everything. They were micro managing the principal of Morris Isaacson, Lekgau Mathabathe. He was very supportive of the struggle, and was detained several times.

Soldiers used to come into the township in a two-coach train and shoot people. The soldiers would wake you up in the wee hours of the morning to interrogate you. On one occasion the Tipa trucks that remove rubble came into the township. Suddenly soldiers appeared on those trucks, and started shooting at everybody, including young kids. The lifeless bodies of those who had been shot were thrown into the trucks. They shot this guy Wandile in the elbow and threw him into the truck. That’s when the killing spree escalated. They ultimately killed about 600 people, loading them into the trucks afterwards. Once in, you could never come back out again. If you raised your head, they would shoot you back inside. So you laid there, and they threw piles of bodies on top of you until you eventually died. So Wandile died from bleeding and the piles of bodies being thrown on him.

The one thing that irritated us the most were the bottle stores and drinking places which were found everywhere in the township. We eventually burned these down. We also took out the liquor and smashed it. We did this because we were seeing them as things that were affecting our daily lives, most importantly our parents who grew fond of drinking. We also burnt down the municipal offices. Unfortunately, the Dube library was also burned down…

When we identified shortcomings in our plight, we knew that we needed something more, such as our own weapons. That’s when the idea of moving into exile came to the fore... After witnessing the massacre and bloodshed, there was no turning back. So we began searching for routes to exit the country. A guy by the name of Zion Vuyane came to us. He was not a revolutionary. He was more a ‘skollie’ than anything else. And he said: ‘Guys, what do you think about skipping the country?’ That was happening all over the place... Nobody said: ‘I belong to this organisation’. Finally we left for Botswana.

Paddy Kearney, head of Diakonia in Durban in 1976: When the Soweto uprising took place there was a meeting at the SASO office in the Beatrice Street Congregational Church chaired by Fatima Meer. And she was saying to Manas Buthelezi over the phone: ‘Manas, you’ve got to bring what’s happening in Soweto to Natal’. And she organised the big protest meeting in Curries Fountain sports stadium. It was banned. And then she was banned.

Ela Gandhi, executive member of the Natal Indian Congress in 1976:
Although we didn’t have Afrikaans here in Durban, the students here also went on massive boycotts... there was also support from teachers and parents in many of the Indian schools; very clandestinely by teachers because they could have been fired. They did not call in the police or warlords as was the case in the townships of KwaZulu, which resulted in unprecedented violence. Whereas when you look at KwaMashu and other townships the support that was there from progressive people was overshadowed by Inkatha’s violent actions, combined with the police and the army. Inkatha was very much against those boycotts.

Mafison ‘Murphy’ Morobe, a leading figure during the uprising and deputy chair of the Soweto Students Representative Council, who led the uprising in 1976.
I had to read the Bible a lot. And later on I would understand the church that I belong to and its role in the history of our country; the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the AME Church. One of the fascinating things …was that [my uncle, who was a preacher] preached the sermon in Afrikaans. So, my early exposure to the language was actually right inside my home, [and] not at school. Not to mention the fact that when I came home to visit my father in Soweto, everybody spoke Afrikaans. It was a township version; tsotsi-taal form. Afrikaans was an integral part of our lingua franca at home and also in the townships. The issue for me was not really so much the question of Afrikaans as a language in itself, but as more a function of a political aspect associated with the enforced utilisation of Afrikaans at schools.

In the late ’60s I did pick up stuff about the Black Consciousness Movement… I often get asked: ‘Was there something that prompted you to be political?’ I just can’t place my finger on any one thing because there isn’t really any one thing. I suppose it’s just the environment as it was, the friends that I had, and my interest in books and my inquisitiveness, and perhaps I think the church environment and its notions of justice that we picked up from the stories [in] the Bible and the parallels that you grew up to see…. There were others like Reverend Castro Mayathula, Dean Farisani [and] Frank Chikane who were now beginning to come in from the Black Theology perspective. They sought to bring relevance to theology as it was preached to us and introduced to it a dimension that would make it relevant to the issues that we were raising with the Student Christian Movement of the time – that we can’t allow ourselves to continue to be focused on to the Bible. Our view was – and I think it was the correct view – that the Bible was being used by our oppressors to mollycoddle the masses and to keep us from sin beyond just the platitudes they wanted, the deeds that they were visiting upon us.

And hence it was easy for us to find common cause with the Black Theology perspective, because then in that sense we had priests who spoke our language, the language of our own feelings, of our people, in a much more relevant sort of way. And it was really in 1973/74 that I became slowly to be exposed to the ideas of the African National Congress, mainly through Radio Freedom, when some of us used to have shortwave radios and we would invite each other to come around to listen to Radio Freedom in the evenings.

Madoda Daki, matric student in Cape Town in 1976:
In 1976 I was still doing my Matric when the Soweto uprising started. If I remember well, Jimmy Kruger said it could never happen in Cape Town or something like that. And we took it as an insult… I remember it was cloudy and cold that Wednesday, the 11th August 1976. Students from primary schools in Nyanga East and Sizamile came to our school.

The nuns actually encouraged us to go out and join them before getting into their cars and leaving the school. So that was the beginning of our uprising. And as we were moving on this street next to the forest that we used to call Lovers Lane, the police came with teargas and dispersed us.
We dispersed, but gathered again. And we then heard that some students had already been arrested and held at Guguletu Police Station. So we marched to Guguletu Police Station. When we were standing in the area that is now Malunga Park, the police were on one side and we were on the other. They were shooting teargas at us, but the wind was blowing the teargas back to them. It was becoming a bit of a farce.

I do not think any single organisation organised the uprising. But there were all sorts of slogans. ‘Africa for Africans’; ‘Izwe letu’; ‘Amandla’. And we were also singing the song Senzeni Na. That was the song we sang on the 11th of August.

After the police had promised to release the arrested students, we dispersed. But the police then attacked. The students then started burning down government installations like the rent offices; stoning anything that represented officialdom... That Wednesday evening the lights were off in the township, and it was scary because there was shooting all over. You only heard gunshots. And it was obvious that the shots were not coming from our side because it was machine gunfire. From that moment one felt that there really was no turning back. The next day, although nobody had called a stay-away everyone stayed away from work. There was looting; people taking liquor from bottle stores.

There was a heavy police presence, and the police were dressed in camouflage uniform. That was the first time I saw the riot squad. There was also this red Valiant with four white policemen or soldiers. The driver was driving with one hand and all the four windows had rifles pointed out shooting at anything that moved.

The Thursday, people were telling stories of people dying. Now we were isolated. We decided to boycott school until freedom came because we were convinced that it was not going to take more than six months. But there was not much of a direction. We would go and stone cars and burn things. People started disappearing. After that everybody wanted to leave the country. Later that year, or early in 1977, Abe Mgwashe, Tony Yengeni, Boy James and others disappeared. And it was known that they had left the country.

Temba Nolutshungu, activist based in Cape Town linked to the Black Consciousness Movement in 1976:
I organised a meeting of the Black Mamba Youth Movement, and included people who were not involved in politics. We sent out pamphlets …throughout Langa Township, and we said: ‘We are going to have a solidarity meeting to discuss what we could do for the people of Soweto’. This meeting took place in one of the committee rooms of the Langa Civic Hall. About 30 people turned up. I was chairing that meeting and said: ‘We must think in terms of how we can assist the people in Soweto. Maybe we could organise funding to send to the people to help them’.

Bongani ‘Days’ Gqiba stood up and said: ‘No Temba. This is all nonsense what you are talking about now. Our people are dying and you are talking about us organising food parcels and some funding and sending stuff over there. Let us strike here as well’. From that moment it was quite clear. No way could they be talked into doing something more moderate, and not confrontational.

From that moment on we organised petrol bombs and hid them in various parts of the townships. But we did not actually confront any structures or institutions in the townships that were manifestations of the apartheid system. We just waited. And then there was a meeting of the students at Langa High School. I was in Mowbray when I heard that the students had marched out of Langa High School. One of them, Xolile Mosi, was shot dead. I just dropped everything. And I was looking for everyone who had also in turn been looking for me, and for everyone else who had been at that meeting at the Langa Civic Hall. Everyone said: ‘Now it has started. This is it’. And from that point onwards, it was petrol bombs targeting beer halls and institutions that were an extension of the apartheid structures.
In the Western Cape you had the Africans, coloureds and the Indians and some whites. Those white students that were involved were right at the centre of the uprising. This had to do with the fact that we had the BCM and there were people like Steve Carolus, Jean and Ballo Naidoo, and their children.

There were so many people that were involved. This explains why in the Western Cape the uprising continued for a much longer period than in other parts of the country. What did not make sense to the government is that you had the Africans side by side with the coloureds and Indians. For them it was something unthinkable. About two years after the Soweto uprising in Cape Town, I said to myself: ‘This must be the beginning of the end of apartheid. If you had this broad support by people that you thought had no interest in politics, how is the government going to put an end to this?’

Dr Mongezi Guma, a young priest in Cape Town in 1976:
[I got] sucked in bit by bit because people had to be buried. So you go and bury this one, and you bury that one. But that begins to expose you to the students. And the situation itself begins to escalate beyond just a small skirmish in that corner. Other things begin to happen. There is disruption of schools. The students then ask you to mediate on their behalf when they are talking to the education department. And in December 1976, there was internecine violence in Nyanga. It was called the Black Christmas. This occurred literally at the doorstep of the church; all those people whose houses were burnt. There were also an increasing number of cases that came up in terms of the students. I then felt that we needed to contact some people who would be able to help us pay for the legal fees, refugees, funerals, etc. This is where the International Defence and Aid Fund came in.

Ann Tomlinson, an activist in the Churches Urban Planning Commission (CUPC) based in Cape Town in 1976:
CUPC also played a pivotal role during the 1976 uprisings in the Western Cape. We used the networks of CUPC to get people who were injured to the hospitals and doctors so that they don’t get arrested. We used to take them to the Christian Institute.

Moira Henderson had an office in the yard of the Christian Institute and helped the detainees centre. We took young people who were detained and needed legal help to Dullah Omar, a lawyer in Woodstock. We also used the CUPC kombi and car to take families to Victor Verster or Pollsmoor or whichever prison where people were detained. Because many of the parents of the young people that were arrested didn’t understand what was going on, we would support them and explain to them where their children were, and that we were getting lawyers to help them. We used the CUPC kombi so parents didn’t have to pay extra money.

I personally drove that blue kombi many times from Hanover Park to Wellington, Victor Verster, and back. And I personally saw shootings happen in Hanover Park. I saw a man at the terminus apparently on his way home from working night shift. It was midday, and the police shot him. It was shattering to see that. I saw a young boy in a group chasing after a Snowflake van that was delivering flour being shot in the stomach. And you couldn’t go and help because the police took him. And I kind of wondered what they were going to do with him. That child should have been taken by an ambulance. But the police were the first there. So you couldn’t go nearby. I saw how the rent office in Hanover Park was stoned. And you get amazed at the feelings of people when they throw stones; all the people’s frustrations were vented against these places of oppression.

Lumko Huna, a young activist in Cape Town in 1976:
My involvement in the ANC intensified after 1976 because the programme was to use this opportunity to take some of these guys who were involved and bring them into the fold... Comrade Mountain Qumbela and other people said: ‘We need to recruit some of these young guys into the underground cells’. Now that was my main task because I was young. So I could easily speak to the young guys…I started meeting with Norman and Tony Yengeni. So I started speaking to them about the ANC. We started meeting at Mr Yengeni’s house in NY1 in a shack at the back. I would tell them about the ANC and give them some of the books.

In this one book there was a diagram with steps on how to make a petrol bomb... I started recruiting young guys to join the movement in 1976. I had to tell some of our guys that the ANC had an armed wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe. So: ‘Find guys who are interested in leaving the country’. At that time I was working with Fumani Gqiba. We started recruiting and sending guys out of the country. And we were meeting with comrades who were sent by the ANC from outside the country. We took people out through Lesotho.

Reverend Dean Farisani, leading anti-apartheid activist in Makhado in the 1970s:
We started, I remember, the first branch of the Black People’s Convention here. And the message spread. We went to business people, to students, to whomever! And we fought against, among other things, Bantu Education. So, by the time 1976 happened there was hardly any school here that we did not go to address and encourage young people to actually resist. It was not only in Venda. I went to the then Cape Province, to Natal, to the whole of the Transvaal, what is called Gauteng now. We addressed meetings at Regina Mundi, at the DOCC, at universities, at Wilgespruit. We went to the Free State and encouraged people to join the liberation struggle.

Now when 1976 came, people who needed to leave would come to me. And we would assist them to cross the border. Some would cross the border and go to Mozambique. And while there, the ANC wanted to know their credentials. Are you a spy or not a spy? So then they would find ways to communicate with me. And I would write to confirm that that is a genuine comrade. ‘Feel free to accept him.’

Dathini Gwili, a young student in Tlokwe:
In 1976, most of us students at Tlokwe High School were not politically involved. But then what happened in June 1976 in Soweto affected us. That is when those guys from Soweto went all over the country. And they came here to politicise us in Tlokwe. That’s when my political career began. At the time there were no student organisations. There was a lull at the school then. But when those guys came in here they taught us how to organise ourselves into student bodies. That is when we became loosely organised under the leadership of the Student Representative Council (SRC). But it was not so strong. And a few years later we formed the Ikageng Youth Congress.

Authors: Dr Greg Houston, chief research specialist, Governance and Service Delivery (DGSD) programme, HSRC; Mojalefa Dipholo, master’s intern, DGSD; Nedson Pophiwa, chief researcher, DGSD.

The interviews were conducted by Dr Gregory Houston, chief research specialist, Democracy, Governance and Service Delivery (DGSD) programme, HSRC; Dineo Seabe, Kombi Sausi, Mike Saneka, Hangwelani Magidimisha, Mojalefa Dipholo, Nedson Phopiwa, Shepi Mati, and Bernard Mbenga, all DGSD.