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Home > Coming to Terms With the Past: Soweto June 16th, 1976

Coming to Terms With the Past: Soweto June


16th, 1976
By Gary Baines
Published in History Today Volume 56 Issue 6 June 2006
Coming to Terms with the Past
Gary Baines explains that the ANC government has institutionalized
memories of the Soweto uprising in its efforts to build a new national
identity in South Africa.
On June 16th, 1976, the South African police opened fire on a mass
march of school students from Soweto, a township southwest of
Johannesburg, killing at least twenty-three. What had begun as a
peaceful demonstration quickly escalated into a revolt characterized
by attacks on symbols of state power in black townships. The Soweto
uprising proved to be a watershed in the demise of the apartheid
regime.
The Bantu Education Act of 1953 had given responsibility for the
education of all school-going blacks to the Bantu Education
Department, part of the Department of Native Affairs, then headed by
the white supremacist Hendrick Verwoerd. Conditions in the
departments schools were appalling. There was a chronic lack of
educational materials, student-teacher ratios were as high as 56:1
and only one in ten teachers had matriculation certificates. In 1976,
following the restructuring of the curriculum, Standard 6 students
were reassigned from primary to secondary schools, resulting in the
enrolment of 257,505 pupils, while classrooms across the country
had space for only 38,000. The introduction of double sessions did
little to alleviate the massive overcrowding.

Amidst this chaos, the South African Students Movement (SASM)


was working with its counterpart in the black tertiary sector, the South
African Students Organisation (SASO), to create a national
movement of high school students. Certain teachers, recently
qualified from universities with a black consciousness orientation,
also joined the ranks of those expressing grievances against the
governments educational programmes. Consequently, there was
widespread politicization of youths in townships such as Soweto. This
was accompanied by anger directed at the elder generation that had
been prepared to suffer the indignities of a second-class education in
silence.
The catalyst in the Soweto uprising was the Department of
Educations decree that Afrikaans was to become the medium of
instruction in certain designated subjects (such as mathematics and
science) in the junior secondary phase. Although not immediately
implemented in all schools, those students affected by the directive
called for class boycotts. Rejecting the mediation of some parents,
principals and teachers, an increasing number of Soweto junior
secondary pupils swelled the ranks of those calling for protest action.
The Soweto Students Representative Council organized a mass
demonstration to take place on Wednesday, June 16th.
On the day in question, students gathered at different places in
Soweto with the intention of marching to Orlando West Secondary
School to pledge solidarity in the struggle against Bantu education.
Police blockades prevented the students, estimated to number
between 15,000 and 20,000, from reaching the meeting point. When
the crowds ignored police orders to disperse, tear gas and dogs were
used. Finally, the police opened fire on the crowd. The students
retaliated by setting alight schools, government buildings, municipal
beer halls and liquor stores, Putco buses and police vehicles. In the
days that followed, the uprising spread to other towns on the
Witwatersrand, and then to other urban centres. The toll from what
was then the largest episode of protracted violence in apartheid
South Africa eventually rose to more than 700 dead and 5,000

injured. At least half of the casualties were in Soweto. In response,


the apartheid regime declared a state of emergency.
In the official report of the Cilli commission into the Soweto riots,
the apartheid state exonerated itself of responsibility for its illconceived policies and the murderous intent of its security forces.
The versions of the events of June 16th produced then and
afterwards by historians, novelists, reporters, eyewitnesses, and
participants have shaped the narrative of the Soweto uprising that
has crystallized in that communitys social memory. And the
testimony before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) of
some of those involved in or affected by the uprising accorded
(belated) official recognition of the importance of living memories in
reconstructing the past. Invariably, personal narratives of key
historical events are subsumed by official ones and private memories
by collective ones. And so the living memories of the Soweto uprising
have been inscribed in the master narrative of the liberation struggle
constructed in post-apartheid South Africa. The story of Soweto has
become emblematic of the triumphalist grand narrative of the
liberation struggle that is the foundation myth of the post-apartheid
state established by the African National Congress (ANC).
Symbolic icon of the uprising is Sam Nzimas famous photograph of
Mbuyisa Makhubu carrying the body of Hector Petersen, taken
shortly after the police opened fire on the student demonstrators in
Orlando West. Because Nzima happened to be the only
photographer at the scene, his images are the only visual record of
the events. The photograph was published in The World the following
day and was subsequently syndicated to newspapers abroad,
appearing, for instance, on the front page of the Guardian.
Celebrated though it is as a piece of photojournalism, the image
actually tells the viewer little. The shootings occurred momentarily
before the picture was taken and outside the frame of the
photographers vision, and the identity of the figure cradled in the
running boys arms is hard to ascertain. The viewer would be hard

pressed to guess the ages of the three figures, although the girls
uniform suggests that she is a school pupil. But it is the composition
of the photograph, and the human drama that Nzima has managed to
capture, that goes some way to explaining its power. The anguish on
Makhubus face is clearly discernible. The hysteria of Petersens
screaming sister, Antoinette, is self-evident. Altogether, it represents
innocence and victimhood (not unlike Nick Uts even more famous
photograph of the naked Vietnamese girl Kim Phuc fleeing a napalm
strike). When the viewer learns that the victim of the shooting is only
twelve or thirteen years old, this only reinforces the sense of the
needless loss of life; of a child cut down before his time.
Nzima could have had no inkling of the symbolic status that his
photograph would acquire. Commenting in 2001, he said: I realized
later that it was a magnificent picture. It was flashed all over the world
and its still an icon for the youth today. The picture is what Andrew
Hoskins terms a flashframe of memory those headline-defining
visual images of our age that come to anchor the history of events by
virtue of their exceptional quality. Reproduced in countless
photographic exhibitions and publications, nominated for awards, it
has acquired iconic status. Visual images provide us with our
subliminal points of reference that endure in our memories and
shape the past of public imagination. The picture has becomes
indelibly fixed in social memory. It has contributed to making Hector
Petersen into South Africas own Anne Frank; a symbol of the
unfulfilled potential of youth cut down too early.
In memory of Hector Petersen and all the other young heroes and
heroines of our struggle who laid down their lives for freedom, peace
and democracy.
The Hector Peterson Memorial is part of a larger precinct that
includes a memorial wall and a designer-built mausoleum that has a
room devoted expressly to the remembrance of the Soweto uprising.
Like many Holocaust remembrance sites, it enjoys an ambiguous

status. Dubbed a shrine of the nation, it has also become part of the
struggle tourism circuit.
The appropriation of Hector Petersen as a struggle hero by the postapartheid state has not been without controversy. In 1998 an artwork
entitled Hector Petersen Mosaic by the late activist Theo Gerber was
entrusted to the then Deputy Minister of Arts, Culture, Science and
Technology and ANC Member of Parliament, Bridget Mabandla. The
Petersen family was not invited to the handing-over ceremony; nor
had they received any compensation for their sons death after
appearing before the TRC. Petersons affronted mother, Dorothy
Molefe, reportedly stated: If I could help it, I would not even allow the
politicians to utter my sons name. She seemingly objected to the fact
that her sons memory no longer belonged exclusively to his family
but had become public property and a means to advance a partisan
political agenda, and she clearly resented the misappropriation of her
private memories.
In her statement to the TRC, Petersens sister Antoinette remarked
that he should not have been present at the demonstration. This was
because Petersen was himself a primary and not a secondary school
pupil. She also recalled that he was not a member of any
organization that had persuaded the students to join in the
demonstration. She attributed the presence of Petersen and other
younger pupils at the demonstration to curiosity not involvement in
student protest politics. Indeed, Antoinette testified that her brother
was unfamiliar with the issues that had occasioned the demonstration
and that he was not an activist. It appears that Petersen was little
more than a bystander, inadvertently caught in the crossfire of the
polices heavy-handed response to a student demonstration. Despite
this apparent contradiction, he has been turned into a symbol of
youth resistance and sacrifice, remembered for his bravery in the
face of personal danger.
Throughout the late 1970s and 1980s the broad anti-apartheid
movement, both within South Africa and in exile, commemorated

June 16th as Soweto (or Heroes) Day in recognition of the students


sacrifice in the liberation struggle. In 1995, the ANC government
declared June 16th an annual public holiday, giving it the name Youth
Day. The name was undoubtedly chosen for sectarian ideological
reasons, primarily to dispel the notion that black consciousness
organizations such as SASM and SASO were the instigators of the
Soweto revolt. However, there is no evidence to suggest that these or
any other organizations were significantly involved in the revolt. At
most, the rebellion might have been inspired by black consciousness
thinking that produced a new mood of assertiveness and militancy
amongst black people, but it was driven by those directly affected by
the apartheid governments policies, by the students themselves. The
ANC, Black Consciousness Movement, and Pan Africanist Congress
contested ownership of the public memory of June 16th, but as the
ruling party after 1994, the ANC was well positioned to fashion a
narrative of the uprising in which the community story coincided with
its own version. Whether or not the ANC co-opted the militancy of the
youth and hijacked the memory of the Soweto uprising, it has created
a foundation myth through the twin processes of memorialization and
ritualized remembrance.
Youth Day was inaugurated to pay tribute to the part played by the
youth in overthrowing the apartheid regime. This might seem to
suggest that a homogeneous group with a common purpose was
instrumental in toppling the apartheid edifice, and indeed, use of the
collective noun the youth has become a linguistic convention in the
narrative of the liberation struggle, whether applied to the students of
the 1970s or the so-called comrades of the 1980s. Obviously such
an umbrella term pays no heed to the existence of age, gender and
other social divisions that existed amongst the youths in black
townships. In the popular imagination the youth comprise a cohort
of politicized and mobilized young lions unequivocally committed to
the liberation struggle. The version of the Soweto uprising published
in the TRC Report has reinforced this impression. And official history
has laid down the main lines of the foundation narrative that has been
institutionalized and transformed into a new orthodoxy.

At a Youth Day wreath-laying ceremony in 1999, President Mandela


said that Petersen was the boy next door who strived for the most
dangerous weapon. That weapon was education. This statement
was in keeping with many of Mandelas public pronouncements in
which he retrospectively sought to distance himself from the slogan
liberation before education that had been emblematic of the student
struggle but now had outlived its purpose. He wished the new
generation of young South Africans to concentrate their minds and
efforts in securing a better education than those whose schooling had
been disrupted by the crises of the 1970s and 1980s. For as much as
the students and youths have been hailed as heroes for reviving what
had become a moribund freedom struggle, they have also been
called the lost generation. This notion implied that the very people
who had helped liberate South Africa would not have the education
and skills to govern the country in the foreseeable future.
Youth Day 2001 marked the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Soweto
uprising. At this high profile public event, Nzimas photograph was
displayed on banners, flyers and the t-shirts worn by participants in
the events. A march retraced the steps of the student protesters from
the Morris Isaacson School to the Hector Petersen Memorial. At the
rally that followed, President Mbeki invoked the name of the young
struggle icon in the continued fight for a non-racial South Africa for
which Hector Petersen struggled and died. This comment was
greeted with chants of Long live the spirit of Hector Petersen! Long
live! What the spirit of Hector Petersen meant to the members of the
crowd that chanted these words is hard to fathom.
The generation of political leaders who lived through the struggle are
finding themselves increasingly hard pressed to inspire todays
youths the born frees who have come of age since 1994. Essop
Pahad, Minister in the Presidents Office, remarked in June 2001 that
It was painful to realize how little South African youth knew of the
struggles that had been fought to buy their freedom [as] the present
generation need to be constantly reminded of those who fought in the
struggle to make the vision of a non-racial South Africa a reality.

Pahads generation also expressed their concerns that youths were


ungrateful for the sacrifices their elders had made. This is apparent
when government/ANC leaders bemoan the fact that in order to
attract the apathetic youth to their own Youth Day celebrations,
entertainment by musical performers and celebrities has to be
included in the programme. The custodians of the new South Africas
grand nationalist narrative feel aggrieved even betrayed by the
born free generations readiness to forget the struggle.
Gary Baines is an Associate Professor in the history department of
Rhodes University. A longer version of this article was presented at
the Macau Ricci Institutes Symposium on History and Memory in
December 2005.
Source URL: http://www.historytoday.com/gary-baines/coming-terms-pastsoweto-june-16th-1976