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TRC Final Report

Page Number (Original) 557

Paragraph Numbers 119 to 129

Volume 3

Chapter 6

Subsection 16

State and allied groupings
The Soweto uprising

119 In 1975, a directive was issued by the Bantu Education Department to schools in the Transvaal that Afrikaans was to be used on an equal basis with English as a medium of instruction in secondary schools. In February 1976, two members of the Meadowlands Tswana School Board were dismissed for defying the order and by May a class boycott had been initiated at Orlando West Junior Secondary school after a circuit inspector turned down a request for a meeting with protesting students. By the end of the month the number of boycotting schools rose to six. During the same month the first violence broke out when an Afrikaans teacher at Pimville Higher Primary was stabbed and police were stoned when they tried to arrest a youth in connection with the assault. Education authorities responded with a warning that they would not hesitate to shut down boycotting schools, expel pupils and transfer teachers. The conflict continued to escalate. More schools went out on boycott, a number refused to write mid-year exams, and further acts of violence were reported.

120 Despite numerous warnings issued from a variety of quarters about the imminent confrontation, the government appeared reluctant to acknowledge the depth of opposition to the use of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction.

121 Students at the Morris Isaacson School in Soweto played a leading role in raising awareness and organising among students. It also produced some of the organisers of the 16 June protest, including Mr Murphy Morobe and Mr Tsietsi Mashinini [JB00838/01GTSOW]. Former teacher at the school, Mr Fanyana Mazibuko, described to the Commission the unusually close relationship between students and teachers and the overtly anti-establishment stance of its principal, Mr Lekgau Mathabathe, who unequivocally rejected the instruction to teach in Afrikaans.

122 The June protest march had been planned by the Action Committee, an elected body of secondary school students in Soweto. A member of the committee, Mr Dan Montsisi, told the Commission that students felt that they were taking up a battle their parents and teachers had lost. Ms Ellen Khuzwayo [JB00839/01GTSOW] also described the disillusionment students felt at the powerlessness of their parents and teachers:

Children … were very dissatisfied with the situation of the Bantu education. Naturally when they turned to their parents their parents could not help them because I think I am right when I say 75 per cent of the parents of those children had no education, and were therefore very much intimidated by the police, by this whole state of South Africa that made them to be too frightened to approach the white people to say our children say they are not learning at school. So finally these kids took it into their hands, I suppose, to redeem themselves from that malady of lack of education.

123 The Action Committee gave itself only three days to organise the march. Mr Morobe told the Commission how politically and historically significant the decision to organise a march was. Students had grown up in a context where mass mobilisation simply did not occur. They were drawing on a tradition of resistance, crushed during the 1960s, of which they had no direct experience but which remained an integral part of their consciousness and collective understanding of struggle. Morobe said that plans for the march were kept quiet and that parents and teachers were not told for fear they would not approve of the students’ intentions and try to prevent or stop the march from taking place.

124 Mr Leonard Mosala articulated the generational difference separating the students from their parents and teachers:

The people that were involved then were not the people of 1960, they were not the people of Sharpville, they were not the people of 1960. They were younger, they were more sensitive to the repression that the apartheid laws, particularly the pass laws, inflicted, the harm and the suffering that the laws of the country inflicted upon black people. Their aspiration level was far higher, their political sensitivity was deeper and their anger matched the level of their aspirations and their frustration.

125 However, as the students were to learn to their cost:

It was still the same police, it was still the same regime and they still reacted to us in the same way they did in Sharpville in 1960.

126 The march was initiated by pupils from Naledi and Thomas Mofolo high schools. In the two days preceding the march, members of the Action Committee travelled around schools in the township addressing students about the proposed protest on 16 June, and about further protest actions planned for the days following the march. On 16 June, organisers planned to march from school to school gathering more students as they went along.

127 At the special Soweto Day hearing, the Commission heard several witnesses describe Soweto as being “on fire” that day. Hundreds of pupils gathered at the appointed assembly points and at 07h00 the first group of singing, chanting students began marching towards Orlando. The first reported clashes with the police took place at 08h00, when police opened fire on two schoolboys running to catch up with the marchers. By 09h00, approximately 10 000 pupils had converged on Orlando West High School. Moments after an appeal by student leaders for calm, a contingent of police arrived and formed an arc in front of the crowd of marchers. A tear gas canister was thrown into the midst of marchers, who responded by throwing stones. The police opened fire. Two pupils were fatally wounded. The first of these was thirteen-year-old Hector Zolile Peterson. It was Peterson’s death [JB00229/01GTSOW] that fundamentally transformed the nature of the student protest from a peaceful march into a violent confrontation with the government’s security forces.

128 Clashes between the crowds and the police continued through the morning. Pupils began erecting barricades across the streets while hundreds of police reinforcements were rushed into the township. Pupils attacked property, including beer halls and bottle stores, and people, including employees of the West Rand Administration Board (WRAB), killing two WRAB officials, Dr Melville Edelstein [JB00786/01GTSOW] and Mr Esterhuizen.

129 Mr Murphy Morobe told the Commission that the pupils’ resort to violence was a spontaneous expression of their anger. It was never part of the plan. He said:

The policeman with the dog then moved to the front and let loose the dog that came charging at us … It was a real dog that bit some of the students there and I think that that really raised the anger of the students … That dog was then killed by students who sought to protect themselves from it. At that time the police then started opening fire, you know, and sure there was taunting of the police. Basically we were saying they must go, you know, what do they want there because we are not doing anything that required their presence. Once the shooting began it was at the time that the other schools were approaching … after the first volley, you know, I think there was one tear gas canister that was lobbed and it was the first time that many of us had experience of tear gas … some of the canisters hit some of the students. There was a little pandemonium and we tried to rally the students not to panic. It was at that time that the police themselves, for some reason, decided to rush back into their cars and as they rushed back into their cars, the students also, in anger, we were picking up anything that we could find there and we began throwing at the police to get them out of the area.
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