Writing against forgetting - 16 June 1976, a riot that ended in death

Not a normal day

On the morning of 16 June 1976 I woke as normal, had breakfast, and drove to work, as I did every day. The streets of Durban looked the same as they had done for the six years I had lived there, and my office was the same as it had been for the three or so years I had worked as Sales Office Manager for a large motor firm in the industrial area.

But outward appearances were, as they so often are, very deceptive, because this day was not normal, was not the same as all the previous days of my life. But I just was not yet aware of how different, how out of the ordinary, the day truly was.

Headline in the afternoon newspaper The Daily News on 16 June 1976
Headline in the afternoon newspaper The Daily News on 16 June 1976
The caption of this picture in the Natal Mercury of 17 June reads: "Police of the special anti-riot squad, dressed in camouflage overalls and carrying light machine guns, enterd the riot zone after tear gas had disperssed part of the mob. They found
The caption of this picture in the Natal Mercury of 17 June reads: "Police of the special anti-riot squad, dressed in camouflage overalls and carrying light machine guns, enterd the riot zone after tear gas had disperssed part of the mob. They found

The start of a sea change

I became aware of something different as I drove home along Umbilo Road and bought, as I did every afternoon, my copy of the Daily News from a street vendor. Only when I got home and opened the newspaper did I start to get an inkling of just how different that day was. I saw the page one headline "10000 in Death Riot" and the difference that that day would represent for me and for South Africa started to dawn on me.

I guess I did not at first realise the full depth of the change that had come to South Africa right away, but I was certainly aware that something was in the air, as I immediately started to keep clippings of the events as they started to unfold in press reports. The accompanying pictures are from this collection of clippings that I started that day.

This day 33 years later still resonates in the consciousnesses of all who were aware at the time. It marked a sea change, a breakthrough moment in the struggle against apartheid and all that white domination meant. It was the day the children said to their elders, in effect, "Stand aside, we are the future, we are the struggle, we will end apartheid."

The Children's Uprising

And they were right, and that is why this day is still celebrated in South Africa as "Youth Day", an official holiday. This day marks an important milestone on the long, winding and often dangerous road from oppression to liberty, from authoritarianism to democracy in South Africa.

Before 16 June 1976 most Black leaders opposed to apartheid were either in prison or in exile and the struggle had been based on their demands for equality and a strategy of sometimes patient negotiation and sometimes impatient acts of violence and sabotage.

The "children's uprising" marked the end of patience on the part of the children, who rejected their parents' accommodation to the apartheid state and decided to take their fate into their own hands.

The immediate cause of the uprising was the decree by the Deputy Minister of Bantu Education at the time, Dr Andries Treurnicht, a noted right-winger, that henceforth 50% of tuition in Black schools was to be in the medium of Afrikaans. This was bitterly resented by both parents and children, and in spite of warnings of the consequences that could ensue from the imposition of this ruling, the government, in the person of Dr Treurnicht, was adamant that the ruling would stay.. His view was reported in the Daily News of 17 June, "In the white part of South Africa, where the Government supplies the buildings, gives subsidies, and pays teachers it surely had the right to determine what the language in schools should be."

The first student killed by the police on that fateful day was 12-year-old Hector Pieterson, seen here being carried away from the scene by a friend. With them is Hector's sister Antoinette. Photo taken by Sam Nzima
The first student killed by the police on that fateful day was 12-year-old Hector Pieterson, seen here being carried away from the scene by a friend. With them is Hector's sister Antoinette. Photo taken by Sam Nzima

Warnings unheeded

The insistence on this was like flame to dry tinder, the dry tinder being the anger and resentment of Blacks at their continued oppression, the history of more than 300 years of racism which was increasingly legalised and institutionalised.

If the government had been at all sensitive to the signs of the times, it might have made some accommodations of its own.

As the editor of the Natal Mercury wrote on 17 June: "The real tragedy of yesterday's bloody riot at Soweto, in which a number of people died, is that it might never have happened if the authorities had heeded earlier alarm signals."

One of the alarm signals was sounded by the man who became the first white victim of the violence, Dr Melville Edelstein, in whose car when he was killed was a book which he had written in 1972 on why Afrikaans should not be used as a medium of instruction in Black schools.

Another warning signal had come a just six weeks before 16 June from the then Dean of St Mary's Cathedral in Johannesburg, Desmond Mpilo Tutu, who wrote a letter in early May to Prime Minister John Vorster saying, "I am writing to you, Sir, because I have a growing nightmarish fear that unless something drastic is done very soon then bloodshed and violence are going to happen in South Africa almost inevitably."

"I am frightened, dreadfully frightened," Tutu continued in his letter, "that we may soon reach a point of no return, when events will generate a momentum of their own, when nothing will stop their reaching bloody denouement which is 'too ghastly to contemplate,' to quote your words, Sir."

Vorster had some weeks before urged whites in the then Rhodesia to negotiate with the liberation movements in that country because the alternative would be "too ghastly to contemplate."

As the editorial in the Natal Daily News of 17 June said, "We are so desperately slow to learn."

In the weekend newspapers following the outbreak of the violence, Dean Tutu was quoted as commenting on all the warnings that had been made about the feelings of Blacks: "But all these pleas have been spurned - and now we have the reality of Soweto. How much longer will Whites refuse to hear our anguished cry for justice and freedom?"

Through the fire to freedom

Of course as we now know the bloody days of June 1976 were succeeded by many more months of violence and intimidation on the part of the government, and retaliatory violence from the oppressed. This violence continued, in waves and at different times in different places for years after, until eventually the apartheid government was forced by circumstances to at last unban and release Black leaders, and sit down with them at the negotiating table, as Vorster had advised the Rhodesians to do more than a decade before.

And now, 33 years later, there is still a legacy of bitterness and anger to be dealt with, in spite of the fact that South Africa has a democratic government and a Bill of Rights written into its constitution.

But the present is a time of new hope and a looking toward the future, a future made more real by the sacrifices of the past, so that a Black journalist, Thembelihle Tshabala, can write in the latest Mail and Guardian newspaper, who recently walked the route of the 1976 student protests in Soweto: "And, suddenly, I became conscious of my own liberty and of the loves lost so I could walk my Soweto streets without fear. And I felt grateful. And I felt free."

That, surely, is the sign that the years of struggle were worth it, that the students of 1976 did not die in vain, because now we all are free at last.

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Comments 21 comments

R. Blue profile image

R. Blue 7 years ago from Right here

Excellent first hand story Tony.


alekhouse profile image

alekhouse 7 years ago from Louisville, Kentucky

Powerful stuff, Tony. Thanks for sharing


Teresa McGurk profile image

Teresa McGurk 7 years ago from The Other Bangor

You make this come alive. I remember hearing about Soweto, and Desmond Tutu, but the newspaper clippings and the first-hand memories and account bring it to life for me. Thank you.


cindyvine profile image

cindyvine 7 years ago from Kyiv, Ukraine

Tony, I was in Grade 10 then and completely oblivious to what was going on in South Africa at the time. There were only white children at our school but you thought it was normal as that was always how it had been. Settlers High was the only English school in a very Afrikaans neighborhood, and we didn't mix much with the Afrikaners as well. We only got TV in South Africa in 1976, after the Soweto riots, so it wasn't like we could watch what was happening on the news. It was all word of mouth I guess, and in Cape Town, what happened in Soweto never made it to our school, so we never heard about it. People didn't talk about it. However, I do remember at that time, being told at school that Blacks were going to burn down our school, and many students were excited about that, not seeing political implications, but that without a building we wouldn't have to go to school. I do remember hearing that the male teachers were all part of some reserve army as they'd all done their military training when they were younger, and were given RN rifles I think, and had to take it in turns to guard the school at night. It was only when I was older and out of school, that I really heard about what happened and what it was all about. Thanks for this, Tony!


someonewhoknows profile image

someonewhoknows 7 years ago from south and west of canada,north of ohio

Ironic how the number 33 shows up so often in history

It's supposed to be a masonic number.

Just about two hundred years since the signung of the Declaration of Independence in America.

Many of those who signed it were masons.

I'm of the opinion that not all masons are in agreement as to what masonary should represent. Those at the top tell those at the bottom what to do..That reminds me of religion and any other organized political,group.Some know the truth and do what is right ,while others do exactly what they are told as some would call patriotic ,when the only thing that's patriotic about what they do is to blindly follow the leader ,just as some people who clearly do only what their cultures believe.. It's all in the eye of the beholder.To a Democrat a Republican is abberant and to Rrepublican the Democrats are the abberant ones.Intolerance in any form is Abberant behavior Force should only be tolerated if there is no other choice and those who use it ,should be scrutinized vigorisly . 


k@ri profile image

k@ri 7 years ago from Sunny Southern California

"We are so desperately slow to learn." I don't know why we are, but it is true all over! Great hub!


fortunerep profile image

fortunerep 7 years ago from North Carolina

Great Hub. I was small at that time but there have been times I wished I had saved clippings when earth changing things happen, it is great history and i am sure you will revert back to it time and again.

dori


Russ Baleson profile image

Russ Baleson 7 years ago from Sandhurst, United Kingdom

Thanks Tony, I was very aware it was 16th June yesterday and found it very strange being in the UK and not being outwardly reminded of its significance. Excellent hub, thank you.


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 7 years ago from South Africa Author

Thanks for all the comments.

Cindy - that was the tragedy of the apartheid state, it kept us all apart and not knowing what was going on.

I was at a conference a few years ago and there were a number of school children participating, many of them black children.

A few of us older people were talking about June 16 and these youngsters asked us what it was all about. I found it difficult to believe that South African school children in Grade 12 would not, in all the years they had been at school, have learned anything about 16 June! That's why its so important to keep writing and talking about these things - not forgetting!

Love and peace

Tony


john guilfoyle profile image

john guilfoyle 7 years ago

I recall the times....truly change is the only constant...how vivid your memories must b.

it's sad how these changes are bottleknecked when they are inevitable...

somehow wiser heads must prevail..we can but strive to move forward and hope impediments can be averted...if not, history teaches us again and again ad infinitum, the subsequent clash of violence and loss of reason, the ensuing scars of aftermath...and the realization that all of this madness was avoidable...

peace my friend


James A Watkins profile image

James A Watkins 7 years ago from Chicago

So, if the whites had never come to South Africa what do you think it would be like today? Would there be the government, court system, roads, trains, aviation, refrigeration, hospitals, universities . . . oh, I'll stop. I am sure if the whites had never come it would be a great modern civilized nation. :D


Makiwa profile image

Makiwa 7 years ago from Australia

Hi Tony

Yes I was there on the same day, driving down Umbilo Road where I worked (had my own clothing factory) and then out to Hilcrest/Forest Hills where we lived. I had lived for many years in Rhodesia and then Northern Rhodesia on the copperbelt. 8 miles from the Congo border. The Congo revolution exploded over the borders and we rescued many refugies. Terrible, shocking stories were told. I eperienced a similar attack while driving between Mufulira and Ndola where our car was attacked, while we managed to escape a lady in a car coming the opposite way was burnt to death. I think that we all need to understand that there are two sides to every story. I remember thinking - why me - what have I done to them. 'Sins of our fathers?' I have always tried to do the right thing and had 120 blacks working for me in Umbilo. I loved them all and they, I believe would nerver hurt me. My recent trip through South Africa (now living 'free' in Australia), impressed me as the new sophisticated genaration appeared with confidence. I missed the old 'culture' though, living on the fram in Rhodesia I had played and lived with the black people who called me 'Makiwa'.

Like everything we need to keep perspective and understand that the whites did give a lot, perhaps many took advantage but mostly, the white people that I new treated all black people with respect.

Money, power and greed tend to distort and bring out the worst in any colour.


ESAHS 7 years ago

"Super hub!"

"Two thumbs up!"

CEO E.S.A.H.S. Association


Dolores Monet profile image

Dolores Monet 6 years ago from East Coast, United States

Tony, power and oppresion come hand in hand. Those who hold the reigns (and the money) usually believe that they are in some morally superior position, due to their wealth and power and are often blind to the situation faced by the oppressed. It's hard to see the other person's point of view from both sides, as stated above. But we all need to attempt to view the world from the perspective of other folks. It could save a lot of grief.


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 6 years ago from South Africa Author

Dolores - thanks for your thoughtful comment. It is indeed seeing the world form the other's point of view which will enable change.

Thanks for dropping by and reading.

Love and peace

Tony


mulberry1 profile image

mulberry1 6 years ago

Thank you for the history. As a high schooler at the time, I do remember things changing in South Africa and the ending of Apartheid but I didn't recall any of the specifics.


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 6 years ago from South Africa Author

Christine - thanks for stopping by. Your comment is also appreciated!

Love and peace

Tony


mfundisi tshaka 4 years ago

lets forget about the past but remind our self about the history of this country and look forward to the future ,because god didn't create racesim we as people did


pricilla 4 years ago

think june 16 was very dangrous and people were hurt


lesedi 4 years ago

Dear Peterson

May your soul rest in peace and we as the grade seven`s we say may you rest in peace.The learners of St.Annes primary school say you were a good person and you were trustworthy

yours truly

learners of grade seven


Nick Hanlon profile image

Nick Hanlon 4 years ago from Chiang Mai

Great hub on a day that had to come.An Australian cricket captain toured South Africa in the 40's named Ian Johnson had told his white hosts that they we're in a fool's paradise.So it proved to be.Such sadness that was followed by the triumph of 1994.

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