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Salient. Victoria University Students' Newspaper. Volume 39, Number 25. October 4, 1976

Did students organise riots?

Did students organise riots?

English is regarded by South African blacks as a more useful Lingua franca than Afrikaans - and Afrikaans has developed a hated stigma of its own as the "Taal van die Verdrukker," the Language of the Oppressor. Thus the boycott against tuition in Afrikaans was immediately a protest against a whole system - and perhaps the most significant aspect of the present unrest to have emerged is the evident solidarity among the young blacks. Vorster was, quick to attack "agitators and organisers" which, while predictable and customary, was probably justified, but only to an extent. For there is an acknowledged link between SASM, the South African Students' Movement, of which some of the Soweto children were members, and SASO. the Students' Organisation, the radical black students' movement, a number of whose members are currently on trial in Pretoria under the Terrorism Act for their part in a pro-Frelimo rally in Durban.

The actual degree of organisation - and, for instance, the extent of any links between the students inside and the many active exiles outside - is largely unimportant. For what these children of Sharpeville now lack by way of organisation, they have in abundance by way of courage and new horizons, even new possibilities which were not there 16 years ago, nor even until April 1974 when the Portuguese empire crumbled. While they still show surprising but admirable-loyalty to the imprisoned leaders on Robben Island (the "Old Guard" of Sharpeville times), today's black pupils and students now have their own heroes, close at hand in the victors of Mozambique and Angola.

Alongside the victims of Soweto and Alexandra and Mobopane, they have other contemporaries like Abraham Tiro, the young SASO leader who, as student president at Turfloop University in 1972, attacked the very system which had reared him. "We want a system of education," he said, "which is common to all South Africans....." Tiro was expelled - and later killed by a parcel bomb in Botswana.

Today's "kids" in South Africa have had a tough upbringing - and, in Soweto in June, they fought their first battle, which Vorster lost. It is unlikely to be their last battle, nor hit last defeat.

page 15
Bodies of Soweto Demonstrators Killed by Police Gunfire

Bodies of Soweto Demonstrators Killed by Police Gunfire

At the end of October LaW student Henry Isaacs will complete two years as holder of the NZUSA Southern African Scholarship. In this article he comments on the implications of the Soweto uprisings.

On Wednesday June 16 South African Police opened fire on 10,000 peaceful school children in the sprawling Black township of Soweto - 18 miles outside Johannesburg.

The schoolchildren were protesting against a decision by the South African Bantu Education Department that they should be taught certain subjects in the medium of the Afrikaans language.

The first victim was a 10 year old bystander who was shot dead after having been attacked by a police dog. Eye-witnesses stated categorically that the school children retaliated only after being provoked by the police shooting.

Alf Khumalo, a Black photographer on the Johannesburg Sunday Times was caught up in the intitial uprising on Wednesday June 16. This is his story:

"Violence. Small bodies writhing in pools of blood in the dust. Police bullets tearing holes in the mob and the screams of anger and pain. These are my most vivid memories of a day I will never forget.

"I arrived in Soweto at about 11am. The children were marching with banners. Police troops carriers arrived. Men poured out of the vehicles and fired tear gas. At this stage there was no hint of trouble to come. The children were laughing and joking amongst themselves. They advanced on the police but when they saw guns being held at the ready they turned and walked back to Orlando West School.

'The police circled round the marching children, who had swelled to a mob of about 12,000 and fired tear gas into the crowd.

"The children began stoning the police. Some surrounded the policemen and began stoning them from all directions.

'The police began shooting. I remember looking at the children in their school uniforms and wondering how long they would stand up to the police.

"Suddenly a small boy dropped to the ground next to me. I realised then that the police were not firing warning shots. They were shooting into the crowd.

"More children fell. There seemed to be no plan. The police were merely blasting away the the mob.

"What frightened me more than anything was the attitude of the children. Many seemed oblivious to the danger. They continued running towards the police - dodging and ducking.

"I began taking pictures of the little boy who was dying next to me. Blood poured from his mouth and some children knelt next to him and tried to stop the flow of blood.

"Then some children shouted they were going to kill me. A young boy grabbed me by the hand and pulled me away. Eventually it became too dangerous even for him and he left me.

"I ran, jumping over fences and walls to escape, but they surrounded me and two boys drew knives. I thought it was the end.

"I begged them to leave me alone. I said I was a reporter and was there to record what happened. A young girl hit me on the head with a rock. I was dazed but still on my feet. Then they saw reason, and some escorted me away.

"All the time helicopters circled overhead and there was the sound of shooting. It was like a dream. A dream I will never forget"(1)

Warwick Johnston, a New Zealander who teaches English at a teacher's college in Soweto had to be escorted by the SA police, according to his sister. Mr Johnston who lives with his wife in Johannesburg had telephoned his parents and sister here in NZ to assure them that he was well. According to his sister "He said that when he went back today [i.e. the day after the initial shootings) things were much quieter. He had a lot of praise for the police handling of [unclear: the] riots"(2). A week later, the Commissioner of Police, in announcing that the [official] death toll was 140, said: "I am very satisfied with the way the [police] behaved........Where necessary they acted drastically....."(3)

Eric Abraham, the Co-ordinator of Southern Africa News Agency (SANA) filed the following report for the BBC Focus on Africa Service on 16 June:

"In the Black township of Soweto - on the outskirts of Johannesburg - 10,000 angry high school children rioted and stoned a large contingent of police at the Puefeui Junior Secondary School in Orlando West this morning.

"It is reported that two children were shot dead by members of the South African Police who fired hundreds of rounds at the school children - and 14 were wounded. The immediate cause of the unrest which was sparked off last week when school children stoned police and attempted to detain a pupil at the Naledi High School and set a police vehicle on fire, is the new ruling that the children must be taught Mathematics and Social Studies in Afrikaans. However, the root cause for [sic] the current disturbances Lies far deeper. One educationist stated that "The issue has become in a way, a symbol of resistance among the youth to White oppression and White authority, and symbolises a new movement of militancy among the youth!".

He continued that "the unrest reflects a rejection of the school system; Rejection of White authority and a rejection of the passive attitudes of their parents."

Latest reports are that the situation is explosive with sporadic confrontations between police and school children taking place at schools throughout Orlando West and Soweto. Apparently two riot police were taken to hospitals with injuries. I spoke to an Orlando resident on the phone this morning and she said that the situation was "ugly" and at least 50 police cars were at the scene - many have since had their windscreen smashed by stone-throwing school children. No further details are available."

The uprisings spread rapidly and within a few days the entire country was convulsed by violence. By 26th June a sullen calm had descended on the Black Townships and South Africa was able to take a look at the cost in terms of people and property:

Dead : 176 (2 of them Whites)
Injured: 1139
Arrested: 1298
Property Damaged and/or Destroyed:
Beerhalls and Liquor stores: 53
Bantu Administration buildings: 53
Vehicles (Police, Office and Private): 154
Schools: 13
Black hostels : 8
Clinics : 5
Banks : 3
Black hotels : 2

Authorities estimated then that it would take five years and many millions of rand to restore Soweto and the other battered townships (4). Apart from wrecked amenities the health and welfare infrastructure had been smashed. Health records for more than a million Blacks had gone up in smoke.

While the official death toll was given as 196 after the initial uprisings in Mid-June the figure is suspected to be much higher. The reporter of the UN Committee Against Apartheid Mr Nicasio Vladerrama of the Phillipines, told a meeting of the 18 Nation-body that according to information received from South Africa by the UN's Centre Against Apartheid "Leaders of the Black people estimate that about 1,000 Africans have been killed in the recent massacre." He also said that many of the victims were killed by 22 calibre bullets which were not South African police issue. Mr Valderrama said Black leaders reported that Bullets of that calibre were used by a White vigilante group called Citizens Reserve Force "which was allowed to into Doweto to murder the Blacks" (5).

The South African Minister of Police, Mr James Kruger, said at a news conference in Pretoria that "many Blacks were killed by Black rioters and many casualties among rioters were caused by .22 calibre bullets" which were not used by the police. He denied that Reserve troops using .22 calibre guns were sent in and that White vigilantes were allowed to enter Soweto to kill Blacks (6).

Mr Kruger then went on to say that Black police first opened fire on the Students in Soweto and that a total 22 police were injured in the disturbances: police did Not come under gunfire during the violence although two Blacks were arrested in Soweto with .22 Calibre pistols. It had not been established whether the guru had been fired recently(7).

Chief Gatsha Buthelezi of the Kwazulu Bantustan, after a meeting in Johannesburg with the Soweto Civic leaders and Progressive Reform Party Leader, Mr Colin Eglin, reported to his cabinet (in the Bantustan) that the violence erupted after the police opened fire. His estimate of the number killed was "several hundred". On Monday 9th August 1976 I was in Canberra where I spoke to an Australian lady who had worked in South Africa for 2½ years during which time she had made many friends in the Black Community. She was in South Africa during the uprisings and had returned to Australia only a week before I met her. She estimated that at least 800 people had been killed.

Though the initial demonstrations were clearly sparked off by the Afrikaans language issue it became clear that the language issue merely provided the unifying factor the escalation of Black Resistance to Apartheid - resistance unparralled since Sharpeville in 1960. One Black leader termed the Soweto and subsequent uprisings "a projection of Black anger against the racist regime."

The stoning and burning of the symbols of the White government and administration the beer halls, post-offices, buses and administration offices in the townships illustrated this. Mrs Winnie Mandela, wife of Nelson Mandela, the nationalist leader serving a life sentence on Robben Island, denied the Government claim that it was merely [unclear: thee] action of a relatively small group of looters and opportunists or "Tsotsi's", that had led to the confrontation but rather the very real grievances of Black people in South Africa. As one newspaper observed:

"The riots in Soweto have clarified a number of issues about our South African society. "Ostensibly the issue has been the use of Afrikaans in schools. In fact this is no more than a catalyst; the real issue is the constant degradation, deprivation and total lack of control which is suffered by all young Blacks. "The school boycotts have been in progress for five weeks. This is no mean feat. It takes immense determination and genuine support to maintain a movement as long as this. It is founded not on agitators, but on a bitterness and frustration which runs very deep.

It is a bitterness against Afrikaans, the WRAB (West Rand Administration Board), and Whites in [unclear: general] which does not exclude dogooder liberals who ironically are the first to be killed. Such virulence, which can turn quickly to violence, does not bode well for our future.

"The riots must destroy once and for all the myth of the happy, tame Black trotting off gaily to the Transkei. The feelings which were behind the successes of the ANC and the PAC 15 years ago remain unabated, and more volatile than ever before. Violence is in the air, and the present violence is not a freak phenomenon. It is the logical result of what we do to Blacks.

"Without some radical changes - not simply in school curricula - there is a very real danger that riots in Soweto (and elsewhere) will become our way of life".