13 June 2011
Visitors can relive South Africa’s turbulent history by walking the route that protesting Soweto school students took on 16 June 1976 – the day that marked the beginning of the end for the apartheid regime. The entire path has been declared a heritage trail.
The beginning of June – Youth Month – is an appropriate time to relive some of the events of the 1976 Student Uprising; retracing the steps of the Soweto students and children, heart-rending anecdotes are told by locals who were likely participants, bystanders or spectators on the day it all exploded, 16 June.
The route they chose through the streets of the sprawling township south-west of Johannesburg is tortuous. The heritage trail begins at Morris Isaacson High School in Jabavu, where the protest is said to have gained momentum, after starting at Naledi High School, in the southwestern end of the township.
Inside Morris Isaacson, visitors are met by a bronze statue of the 19-year-old political campaigner, Tsietsi Mashinini. He is hoisting his right fist upwards, a universal gesture signalling the mobilisation of people to reclaim power and influence, and embrace their liberation, in this case from the racially oppressive government of the day.
Outside the school, lies a broad, tree-lined avenue with a paved walkway painted red, signalling the blood lost on the day – this is where the June 16 heritage trail begins. Parallel is the June 16 Memorial Acre, a plague erected to commemorate the happenings of the day. It stands alongside a small, scruffy mural, standing forlornly amid uncut grass.
On any given day, the suburb of Jabavu is abuzz with life; taxis hoot while they rush around, ferrying passengers here and there, learners and pedestrians crisscross the streets, children shout playfully above the din, and informal traders on street corners do brisk business.
It is a typical scene on Mphuti Street, just outside Morris Isaacson. There is another busy intersection nearby, on Tsietsi Mashinini Street, overlooking the school backyard. Here some of the events and memories of the day are recaptured.
The 1976 school boycotts began in mid-May, when pupils refused to go to school. They were protesting against Bantu education, an inferior education forced on them by the government. Afrikaans had also been introduced as a medium of instruction, further angering the learners.
A clandestine student meeting was held in Orlando on Sunday, 13 June and about 400 students attended. At the meeting, Mashinini, a prominent figure and leader in the events of June 1976, advocated for a mass demonstration against the use of Afrikaans, planned for Wednesday, 16 June.
An action committee called the Soweto Students’ Representative Council was formed to organise the demonstration, with two representatives from each Soweto school.
As day dawned on 16 June, students converged at different points across Soweto, then set off to meet at Orlando East, where they planned to pledge their solidarity, sing Nkosi Sikeleli ‘iAfrika – at the time a freedom song – and depart, having voiced their grievances against the state.
More than 10 000 students marched through Soweto, hoisting placards and banners. Slogans such as “Down with Afrikaans” and “Viva Azania” reverberated around the route as protesters made their procession. It is estimated that at least 250 000 people in Soweto were actively involved in the resistance.
Mofolo Arts Centre
At the Mofolo Arts Centre, near where the marchers passed by, an adult man identifies himself with his first name, Mosoeu. He was 10 years old at the time of the 1976 uprisings, and clearly remembers the time. He says the march actually started at Naledi High School, collecting marchers along the way to Orlando East.
“We marched from there and we met other students in Senaoane. Then we carried [on] through Koma Road and then arrived at Morris Isaacson,” he says, noting that when the procession left the school, they agreed to march to Orlando Community Centre, opposite the Orlando Police Station on Mooki Street.
They set forth on Mphuti Street, marching along the road until it becomes Machaba Street, at the intersection of Roodepoort Road. This part of the trail is treed and green, and adequately marked. The marchers turned right into Zulu Drive, past Mofolo Bridge, where demonstrators were halted by the apartheid security forces.
Mosoeu says this was the first altercation of the march. Police used teargas and fired bullets in the air to disperse the crowd; however, this did little to deter them, he adds. “The protesters were determined to make their voices heard.”
They continued along Zulu Drive, which becomes Mahalefele Road and then Pela Street at the intersection with Moema Street. Today, the Hector Pieterson Museum stands here, marking the infamous shooting of the young boy, the first to die in the march.
It was here that the students had another run-in with the police, whom they pelted with stones and beer bottles. They retaliated with force in an attempt to quell the rioting, firing live ammunition in the air – and into the throng of protesters.
It is believed that some 200 Soweto learners lost their lives on the day and over 500 died across the country, as unrest spread like wildfire to other communities. Hundreds of others were injured.
The government’s account of Hector’s death was that he had been killed by a stray bullet; however, a post-mortem later revealed that he was killed by a shot fired directly at him, and not by a ricocheting bullet, as the police had claimed.
Initially, students had planned for the demonstration to be peaceful. More than 20 000 young people participated in the protest. They were protesting against the language policy, and for an education that was equal to that of white pupils.
With the streets having been turned into a war zone, it is expected that 35 years later there will some remnants of the destruction, but there are none. What remains are several information plaques, which give passers-by a passing taste of some of the key events of the day. Yet there is also a plethora of history, heritage and modern culture to soak up.
The entire route has been declared a heritage trail, specially marked by a red walkway. It starts outside Morris Isaacson High School and continues to the Hector Pieterson Memorial and Museum in Orlando West. It can be walked, cycled or even driven.
Another part of the trail, from the museum to the Orlando Community Centre hasn’t been adequately marked, although it is well-developed and verdant.
There is a myriad upgrades which now characterise the trail along Khumalo, Moema and Vilakazi streets – once a battleground, it has been spruced up and turned into a tourist precinct with paved walkways, gardens with manicured lawns, meticulously pruned trees, street lights and furniture, public art, artefacts and the sort of thing that enthrals tourists and visitors like.
The area outside the museum is a melting pot of sorts – tourists walk around, flashing cameras in hand; young schoolchildren run amok; and street vendors carry on with their daily business. The museum façade faces the area where Hector is said to have been shot, now marked by a plague with the famous Sam Nzima image handcrafted into it. There is another one in the background.
Moema Street, on which the museum is built, intersects with Vilakazi Street, a well-established tourism precinct attracting at least 120 000 local and international visitors a year. Two Nobel laureates, retired Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela, have lived here.
The Mandela matchbox house comprising four inter-leading rooms that contain memorabilia belonging to him and his former wife, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, is a museum and lies a few blocks from where the young Hector was shot.
On any given day, the area bustles with life and traffic moves without hindrance. It is still filled with schoolchildren who carry on with their lives unabated, some oblivious of the sacrifices of the youth of 1976.
Today, June 16 is a South African public holiday commemorated as Youth Day. Each year on the day, homage is paid to the young people who sacrificed their lives by defying the apartheid government and rejecting Bantu education. Their actions unwittingly changed the course of South African history and intensified the struggle for liberation.
Walking the June 16 trail will acquaint any stranger with the township, and one might realise that the world’s most famous and biggest township is not so big. Identifying less than 10 landmarks along this trail will accustom any visitor to the rest of Soweto, because most streets interlock and suburbs combine.
- Find out more: Heritage Trail: 16 June
Source: City of Johannesburg