A planned, peaceful protest in Soweto against Afrikaans as the teaching medium in schools on 16 June 1976 became one of the most pivotal days in South Africa’s history. After the police opened fire on the mainly child protestors, the march quickly changed from peaceful to chaotic. Those who were there shared their memories.
The Hector Pieterson Memorial and Museum commemorates the events that took place on 16 June 1976. (Image: Brand South Africa)
The events of 16 June 1976 went down in South Africa’s history books because the schoolchildren of Soweto took to the streets to protest against being taught in Afrikaans. Things turned ugly, though, when police opened fire on them on Maseko Street.
Hector Pieterson was just 12 on the day. He was not first to be shot – that was probably 15-year-old Hastings Ndlovu – but he was the first to die.
The picture taken by news photographer Sam Nzima of Pieterson being carried by Mbuyisa Makhubo, his sister, Antoinette, running at their side, became a global symbol of apartheid oppression. It prompted the international community to put in increased pressure on the government to end apartheid.
Today, the Hector Pieterson Memorial and Museum is a testament to the children of 1976 and their contribution to the struggle to end apartheid. Nzima’s photo is central to the monument.
On the ground
After the march, many student leaders and protesters were forced into exile or faced jail time. In their candid chats with various media – soon after the events and in later years when Youth Day became an official public holiday – they described what happened.
“The main thing is not to provoke the police. We have to keep telling everyone to be disciplined, that we’re marching to a particular place and then we’ll disperse,” Tsietsi Mashinini, the chairperson of the Action Committee (renamed the Soweto Students Representative Council or SSRC), told his friend Murphy Morobe, a fellow organiser of the march.
“We were singing and it was jovial, the mood was exciting and with the placards we started going. The guys had made placards the previous night – I personally did not make one but most of my friends and classmates made some,” recalled protestor Phala Modise about the start of the march.
“Our original plan was just to get to Orlando West, pledge our solidarity and sing Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika,” explained Morobe. “Then we thought we would have made our point and we would go back home. No one envisaged a process that would go beyond June 16. Little did we expect the kind of reaction that we got from the police on that day.”
“Police dogs were released and the brave guys among us started stubbing the dogs and we started stoning the police and teargas was fired into the crowd,” said Modise. “For the first time in my life I heard the word ‘teargas’ which we started inhaling. Things just got out of hand after that because some of the brave among us started charging police with dustbin lids trying to protect themselves from being shot. And police started shooting live ammunition. I could see one learner falling and all hell broke loose.”
“We were channelling the anger. And I think for us, a demonstration was the notion that immediately came to mind. But even as we thought of a demonstration, there continued to be memories of what happened in Sharpeville, even though in fact what happened subsequently [on] June 16 was not really part of our plan, the students, but the fact that it happened was in itself at that point a reflection of the intensity of the situation on the ground,” said Morobe during the commemoration of the protests in 1993.
Journalist Nomavende Mathiane described the bloodshed that continued the next day. “On June 17, I watched as bodies were dragged out of what had been a shopping centre on the Old Patch Road (sic). I saw figures running out of the shop, some carrying goods. They ran across the veld like wild animals, dropping like bags as bullets hit them. I saw billows of smoke shoot up as the white vehicles burned. I thought the world had come to an end. I saw leaders inside and outside Soweto plead for reason and I saw people detained and killed.”