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Writing Against Forgetting: 16 June 1976, a Riot That Ended in Death

Tony is a writer and photographer who lives in Pretoria, South Africa.

The Soweto Uprising

The morning of 16 June 1976 began as any other; I woke up, had breakfast, and drove to work, as I did every day. The streets of Durban looked the same as they had done for the six years I had lived there, and my office was the same as it had been for the three or so years I had worked as Sales Office Manager for a large motor firm in the industrial area.

But outward appearances were, as they so often are, very deceptive; this day was not normal. It was not the same as all the previous days of my life. I just was not yet aware of how different, how out of the ordinary, the day truly was.

The Start of a Sea Change

I became aware of something different as I drove home along Umbilo Road and bought, as I did every afternoon, my copy of the Daily News from a street vendor. Only when I got home and opened the paper did I start to get an inkling of just how different that day was. I saw the page one headline, "10000 in Death Riot," and the difference that that day would represent for South Africa and for me started to dawn on me.

A Slow Dawning

I guess I did not at first realise the full depth of the change that had come to South Africa right away, but I was certainly aware that something was in the air; I immediately started to keep clippings of the events as they started to unfold in press reports. The accompanying pictures are from the collection of clippings that I started that day.

This day, 33 years later, still resonates in the consciousnesses of all who were aware of what was happening at the time. It marked a sea change, a breakthrough moment in the struggle against apartheid and all that white domination meant. It was the day the children said to their elders, in effect, "Stand aside; we are the future, we are the struggle, and we will end apartheid."

The Children's Uprising

The young generation was right, and that is why this day is still celebrated in South Africa as "Youth Day," an official holiday. This day marks an important milestone on the long, winding, and often dangerous road from oppression to liberty, from authoritarianism to democracy in South Africa.

Before 16 June 1976, most Black leaders opposed to apartheid were either in prison or in exile, and the struggle had been based on their demands for equality and a strategy of sometimes patient negotiation and sometimes impatient acts of violence and sabotage.

The "children's uprising" marked the end of patience on the part of the children, who rejected their parents' accommodation to the apartheid state and decided to take their fate into their own hands.

The Start of Change

The immediate cause of the uprising was the decree by the Deputy Minister of Bantu Education at the time, Dr Andries Treurnicht, a noted right-winger, that henceforth 50% of tuition in Black schools was to be in the medium of Afrikaans. This was bitterly resented by both parents and children. Despite warnings of consequences that could ensue from this ruling, the government, in the person of Dr Treurnicht, was adamant that it would stay. His view was reported in the Daily News on 17 June:

In the white part of South Africa, where the Government supplies the buildings, gives subsidies, and pays teachers, it surely had the right to determine what the language in schools should be.

Warnings Unheeded

The insistence on this was like a flame to dry tinder, the dry tinder being the anger and resentment of Blacks at their continued oppression, the history of more than 300 years of racism which was increasingly legalised and institutionalised.

If the government had been at all sensitive to the signs of the times, it might have made some accommodations of its own.

As the editor of the Natal Mercury wrote on 17 June: "The real tragedy of yesterday's bloody riot at Soweto, in which a number of people died, is that it might never have happened if the authorities had heeded earlier alarm signals."

One of the alarm signals was sounded by the man who became the first white victim of the violence, Dr. Melville Edelstein, in whose car when he was killed was a book he had written in 1972 on why Afrikaans should not be used as a medium of instruction in Black schools.

Desmon Mpilo Tutu's Letter

Another warning signal had come just six weeks before 16 June from the then-Dean of St. Mary's Cathedral in Johannesburg, Desmond Mpilo Tutu. He wrote a letter in early May to Prime Minister John Vorster:

I am writing to you, Sir, because I have a growing nightmarish fear that unless something drastic is done very soon, then bloodshed and violence are going to happen in South Africa almost inevitably. I am frightened, dreadfully frightened, that we may soon reach a point of no return, when events will generate a momentum of their own, when nothing will stop their reaching bloody denouement which is 'too ghastly to contemplate,' to quote your words, Sir.

Vorster had some weeks before urged whites in the then-Rhodesia to negotiate with the liberation movements in that country because the alternative would be "too ghastly to contemplate." As the editorial in the Natal Daily News of 17 June said, "We are so desperately slow to learn."

In the weekend newspapers following the outbreak of the violence, Dean Tutu was quoted as commenting on all the warnings that had been made about the feelings of Blacks: "But all these pleas have been spurned—and now we have the reality of Soweto. How much longer will Whites refuse to hear our anguished cry for justice and freedom?"


Through the Fire to Freedom

Of course, as we now know, the bloody days of June 1976 were succeeded by many more months of violence and intimidation on the part of the government and retaliatory violence from the oppressed. This violence continued in waves and at different times in different places for years after. Eventually, the apartheid government was forced by circumstances to at last disband and release Black leaders. They were also pressured to sit down with them at the negotiating table, as Vorster had advised the Rhodesians to do more than a decade before.

The Legacy Left Behind

Now, 33 years later, there is still a legacy of bitterness and anger to be dealt with, in spite of the fact that South Africa has a democratic government and a Bill of Rights written into its constitution.

But the present is a time of new hope and a looking toward the future, a future made more real by the sacrifices of the past. So much so that a Black journalist, Thembelihle Tshabala, can write in the latest Mail and Guardian newspaper, who recently walked the route of the 1976 student protests in Soweto: "And, suddenly, I became conscious of my own liberty and of the loves lost so I could walk my Soweto streets without fear. And I felt grateful. And I felt free."

That, surely, is the sign that the years of struggle were worth it, that the students of 1976 did not die in vain because now we all are free at last.

For More Information

  • Soweto Uprising - Wikipedia
    The Soweto uprising or Soweto riots were a series of clashes in Soweto, South Africa on June 16, 1976 between black youths and the South African authorities. The riots grew out of protests against the policies of the National Party government and its
  • Hector Pieterson - Wikipedia
    Hector Pieterson (1964 – 16 June 1976) became the iconic image of the 1976 Soweto uprising in apartheid South Africa when a news photograph by Sam Nzima of the dying Hector being carried by a fellow student, was published around the world.

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.