OTD: Soweto Riots Begin

On this day in 1976 Soweto literally exploded as school children and police clashed in what has become known as the “Soweto Riots” or “Soweto Uprising”. An estimated 20 000 students from local Sowetan schools took to the streets of the township to protest the introduction of Afrikaans as the medium of instruction in local schools. It was really the beginning of the end of the “Apartheid Regime”, but it would still take almost 20 years before a government elected by the majority of the people actually stepped into power. Between then and now there have been many changes in South Africa, although the ugly head of racism still rears itself and fingers will get pointed and arguments will get thrown about. 

Unfortunately amongst the many casualties of 1976 was truth and justice. Both would be sorely tried when the dust settled, or when the blood dried.  The figure mentioned in the Wikipedia page about the uprising  reads: 176 deaths (with some estimates ranging up to 700) and 4000 injured,  We will never know either because the government knew that they had used excessive force and had a serious problem on their hands, and they claimed that only 23 students had been killed.

The name most associated with the students is that of  Hector Pieterson (also spelt Pietersen) who was gunned down by the South African police and carried by Mbuyisa Makhubo to a local clinic and declared dead on arrival.  How many people still remember that name? I am sure it is ingrained in the psyche of many Black South Africans from that generation, and unwittingly led to Hector becoming somewhat of an icon. 


As a white South African schoolboy my experience of the events then is very different to that of Black school children so I can never really know the horror of what the riots were like as they ebbed and flowed throughout the country. I am sure that the police who faced those mobs were equally frightened of what may happen to them if they were overrun by a mob. You can be assured that mob justice would prevail, and in later years that could also entail “necklacing” which became yet another form of protest and execution. The Nationalist government was never able to justify their reactions to the riots, relying on propaganda, censorship and oppression of media. The concept of “fake news” would be very familiar to them, because they used it all the time.

Was it worth it? there are those who would argue that it achieved nothing, yet today the national party is gone, and so is grand apartheid, although it has been replaced by grand corruption and cadre deployment by the ruling party. Apartheid is still practised under the title “black economic empowerment (later BBBEE)” banner and things have not really changed in the lives of the very poor;  schools are still without proper toilets or running water, shacks still abound in the poorer parts of the cities, and the poor people still battle to eke out a living while the corrupt line their pockets.  What would Hector Pieterson have to say if he saw what South Africa has become? 

In Soweto you can visit the June  16th student uprising-memorial in Avalon Cemetery or alternatively the Hector Pieterson Monument And Museum is worth the visit.  I know that many would question the neutrality and objectivity  of the museum, but I know I came away with a different vision of the events of that fateful day. My visits happened in 2011/2012, so things may be slightly different now.

South Africa has never been the same since 16 June 1976, and we must respect the fact that children died for a cause they believed in. 


Rest in peace all of those who never went home on that day.

DRW © 2020. Created 15/06/2020.


Youth Day 16 June

Today, 16 June, is known as Youth Day, although the reality is, it is actually the anniversary of a very tragic and blood covered day that changed the course of South African history irrevocably. 
On 16 June 1976, Soweto exploded in a day that will always be remembered. I was 15 years old at the time, probably the same age as those who started marching into history. However, my own history as a 15 year old  was very much different to that of the school children that took to the streets. At the time I never really understood what it was about, or why this happening, and I am ashamed to say I was probably on the wrong side.
It is not my intention to try unravel the events that led up to the carnage that was to follow, there are many resources that are much more qualified than I am. I can only really look back with hindsight onto where we have come from there, and where we may go from here.
Wikipedia has an interesting page on the events, and so has South Africa.info,  that are well worth the read. I can’t help but look at the names of those who dreamt up the grandiose idea of the language policy that is generally considered to be the spark that ignited the flame. I wonder if they woke up on June 17 and realised what they had done?  The irony is that at that time I was in Std 7 in what was then known as a “parallel medium” high school myself, and the language policy was heavily biased towards Afrikaans. 
The rest is history, and the subsequent actions of the police has been heavily criticised ever since. The iconic image of Hector Pieterson (also spelt Pietersen) by Sam Nzima  has become the image that has always remained foremost in the spotlight, and will always be associated with 16 June 1976.  I don’t think anybody could have defused the angry mobs that rampaged up and down the streets, their actions being exacerbated by the actions of the police. It was one of those things that just had to play itself out. 
It is well worth visiting the Hector Pietersen Museum in Soweto, and to view the courtyard with all those names inscribed on random paving stones. Each one represents a life that was lost, and many  cases, not even that name is known. 
The view from the museum today does not really compare to what it was like on June 16, I think in many cases the young inexperienced policemen were ill equipped to deal with the mob that they confronted, and the results were devastating on both sides.  How many today are walking around with PTSD as a result of 16 June 1976?  And how many are laying in paupers graves in Avalon Cemetery?
What did it all achieve? If anything it started us on the road to where we are now. The unrest that was to follow would continue until 1994 brought about the change that was needed in South Africa. Yet, even today the “youth” still sit grappling with issues of unemployment, education, poor service delivery, corruption, nepotism and all permutations inbetween. There is talk that one day South Africa will once again erupt into the horror of riots and mayhem, fingers get pointed and blame gets apportioned, but the difference today is that the government is one that was elected by the majority of the people in the country. Sadly though, that government has let the youth down in favour of their own wallets and cronies. The children that participated in June 16 are all around my age, and I often wonder whether that look back on those events and wish that they had chosen a different route to travel? 
It is well worth taking a trip to Soweto and trying to make sense of the events of the day.  If possible you should visit Avalon Cemetery and see the June 16 Uprising Memorial , as well as looking up the grave of Hector Pietersen. It is a sobering moment to actually stand in front of his headstone, knowing how much his death contributed to our history. 
I expect that today’s youth do not really connect to 16 June 1976,  those events are far in the past, and their priorities are very much different to those of the lost generation that participated in it.  If anything it is just another public  holiday in South Africa, and had it been on a week day would have been celebrated as such. The significance is no longer there, and those who never got this far did not see the results of what happened in 1994 in South Africa when we all stood in the queue to vote. 

The strange thing is that even after all these years, education is still in crisis in South Africa. There are still schools that don’t have classrooms or teachers, there are schools that still don’t have text books, and there are children that still drop out and join the queue of unemployed with a less than basic education. Those that do complete matric still struggle to find jobs, or find that their matric has not prepared them for the working world. Pupils still torch their schools because they feel that something is wrong, and unions still disrupt classes or exams on a whim. Actually, not much has changed if you think about it, all that has really happened is that we move from one crisis to another. Dropping the pass mark and dumbing down the syllabus has not produced people with quality education, but rather is about treating the symptom by denying the disease.

What would the class of 1976 have to say about the schooling of today? I don’t think they would be very impressed at all.
© DRW 2012-2018. Images recreated 25/03/2016

Soweto Sojourn. 12-10-2011

When I first saw the list of graves that had to be photographed for the South African War Graves Project (aka SAWGP), I knew that sooner or later I would reach a point where I would no longer have graves to photograph in the more accessible cemeteries in Johannesburg. And, there are at least 5 in Gauteng that are questionable visits. After much planning I decided to eliminate at least one more of these and Nancefield was the destination.
I had visited Soweto before, covering Avalon Cemetery as well as the Hector Pietersen Museum, both of which are really interesting places to see. Avalon is an experience though, its huge, and it is a mass of graves in all directions, but it has a simplicity that I really like, and its also the resting place of a number of famous Africans. For me though, finding Hector Pietersens grave was still a defining moment, and photographing the Mendi Memorial was very special. 
Avalon Cemetery

My untrustworthy GPS sent me on a wild goose chase as usual, but I had driven this road before so knew more or less where I was going. Nancefield Cem is almost on the intersection of Klipspruit Valley Road and Chris Hani Road, in fact the latter bisects the cemetery in two pieces. My aim, six World War Two graves, were in the  main half of the cemetery. Alas, my GPS was playing the goat and I ended up riding around a veritable maze of houses and tiny streets, the cemetery within shouting distance, but not accessible through that route. Eventually I extricated myself and retraced the route till I found what I was after. Of course, the gate was not easy to find either!
This is NOT the vehicle gate. It’s actually to the right of this fence
I didn’t really know what to expect here, my Google Earth view didn’t really show much aside from small rectangles, and from experience a cemetery can be anything from a jungle to a well manicured lawn with graves. Nancefield was neither of these, it wasn’t too big, the grass had been cut, there were a few trees and overall it was clean and well tended. My CWGC graves are easy to spot if you know what to look for, and my companion had eagle eyes and spotted 4 out of the 6 graves I was after. There is something satisfying about finding a set of these war graves, I always think of it as “bringing them back home”.  I know how it feels to finally get a photograph of the final resting place of a loved one who was lost in the war, my one uncle is buried in Heliopolis in Egypt, and thanks to SAWGP his sister and myself were able to see his grave. That is why I take photographs of war graves, because it is important, its something we do for the future, and for the past.

Then it was time to go, and we set the GPS for Doornkop Cemetery. I wasn’t too sure what we would find there. I was hoping to be able to find missing Jameson Raid graves, data indicates that at least 3 of the raiders ended up in “Doornkop Cemetery”, but I don’t think it is this one because it wasn’t an established cemetery when the Jameson Raid happened. Still, it was worth looking.

Along the way I spotted the Regina Mundi Cathoilic Church which is a name synonymous with the 1976 riots and events around the anti-apartheid struggle. I never had a lot of time to look around here, but maybe one day I will return.
Regina Mundi Church
Regina Mundi Church
Doornkop Cemetery was a surprise, its a big one, and it’s well tended, I did not see signs of vandalism or neglect in it and I was pleasantly surprised. Inquiries at the office drew a blank regarding my Jameson Raiders, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t in the area. It just means we don’t know where they are! I liked the way the yellow dandelion flowers were blooming in some of the areas of the cemetery, and, given the glorious weather, it made for a pretty picture.


Then it was time to head up the road to Dobsonville Cemetery, another unknown as no real information is available. When we arrived the gate was closed, but we were able to open it and drive in and again I was surprised, well maintained, very little vandalism, clean and tidy. The one commonality that Avalon, Dobsonville and Doornkop do have though are the many steel ‘cots” that are found around many of the graves. They were originally used to fend off marauding animals, and somehow the practice hasn’t quite died out, although City Parks does discourage it.  It’s a pretty cemetery though, and I saw quite a few newish stones there, but it was doubtful I would find any soldiers and after a few pics it was time to go. 

A  quick stop at New Roodepoort Cemetery and then it was time to go home. Mission accomplished. These 3 cemeteries I did today are places that very few white people ever see, and for that matter, so is Soweto. Yet, in the 4 trips I have made to Soweto I have really been impressed by a lot of what I have seen. Granted, some of the roads are in the same deplorable state as all of Johannesburg’s roads, but the area is interesting. Spaza shops abound, and the small houses have a well tended look about them, the shopping areas are bustling, and there are people about. Children are playing in the streets and the elderly are sitting on their stoeps. Why don’t I see this in the areas where I live? Possibly the biggest blight on the landscape are the taxis, but then they are maniacs all over the place, and I wonder how many of them have contributed to many of the graves I had seen today.
DRW © 2011-2019. Links repaired 20/05/2015, Images recreated 19/03/2016