One cold midwinter morning, snuggling in bed because the
previous night had been one of those insufferably late ones, I wanted
to squeeze the last drop of sleep from the night gods. I had a vague
sense the sun had long risen, for the room had shed its gloomy night
coat; but, warm and cosy, I was in no hurry to get out of bed.
Suddenly, peace fled from the room as a loud, unruly noise rudely
peeled back my eyelids. Silently cursing, I dragged myself out of bed,
for the noise grew instead of subsiding, and I knew time to rest was
over. I went out to check what the din was about.
‘The school children are protesting!’ the announcement came
from an unidentifiable mouth, spreading to other sources with a
‘They do not want to be taught in Afrikaans at school!’
As the information began pouring in from the communal radio,
the angry students drew nearer and nearer, the noise levels rising.
The electric mood in the air pushed me out of the house and yard,
into the thronging street. I could not resist joining the jittery crowd,
waiting to see the approaching students. The shouts and sounds
of stampeding feet coming our way were alarming. These were no
quietly marching Sunday school brigades but, by the sound and look
of it, young people angry enough to spit fire. The head of the crowd
emerged. Knees up in the air, fists stabbing the sky, mouths wide as
hot ovens: the angry, young people poured into our street.
Wednesday, 16 June 1976.
‘Come! Come, join us!’
The students were everywhere, although there was some semblance
of a body, the main body of the march. They spilled out into every
street, jumping fences and popping up in sleepy yards – shouting
and screaming, recruiting support.
‘Join us! Come and join us!’
‘This is your war, too, come!’
At the heart of the march was the rejection of Afrikaans as a
medium of instruction in most of the subjects in Higher Primary and
Secondary Schools. The students had taken to the street, marching
to Orlando Stadium, holding placards with ‘Down with Afrikaans!’
emblazoned prominently on most. Afrikaans was detested by most
Black people since it was the language of the ruling National Party.
It was seen as the language of the oppressor.
What began as a peaceful march slowly became chaotic as the
police moved in to stop the children from proceeding with their
protest. The police, using loudspeakers, ordered the children to go
back to their schools. We could hear the shouting. We could smell
teargas. And the children were running for shelter all over Orlando
West and Dube.
There were those who were crying, blinded by the teargas. We
soon became involved, taking sides, in something that had initially
nothing to do with us grownups. As the community, how could we
not offer to wash the faces of victims of police assault? We could hear
gunshots and were told the police were firing rubber bullets at not
only the students but anyone and everyone out in the streets now.
If the march had provoked police attack, their attack provoked
retaliation. Students began throwing stones at the police. By the
afternoon, we heard the police were firing real bullets directly at the
children. Two children had died and many were injured.
Before nightfall, the whole of Soweto was engulfed in smoke. I
remember trying to go to work late that afternoon and wondering if
we would be able to return.
That night, we performed and the white crowd rose to its feet. The
standing ovation was an every night occurrence. And it pleased us
to no end. But that night, our hearts were in Soweto. As the curtain
rolled down, we all ran to our dressing rooms. After a frenzied
change of clothing, we ran to our bus, hopped in, and then it roared
away. Rumours had already reached us about more and more people
Soweto was a fortress that night. Soldiers everywhere. They
stopped each car driving into or out of Soweto. Our mini-bus had Ipi
Tombi conspicuously emblazoned all over it. It was stopped anyway.
‘Where d’you come from, this late?’
The driver explained.
Still the bus was searched.
Driving up to Ephefeni (Orlando West) felt like driving through
a war zone: terrifying. Smoke enveloped everything. The smell of
death hung in the air, palpable.
Trying to sleep that night, I wondered how a day that had started
so peacefully could end up like this.
The next morning, the nation was hit by the photo of a boy, mouth
wide open in a silent scream as he runs with all his might, eyes
bulging in search of help he hopes against hope will come. Every
muscle in the taut body strains under the sad, limp human cargo
Hector Pieterson died in the arms of eighteen-year-old
Mbuyisa Makhubu. He was shot by the police and made history:
The First Victim of Police Shooting of Unarmed School Children –
June 16, 1976.
That was an event South Africa will, no doubt, forget one day.
But, that day is not in the country’s foreseeable future. Hector was
followed by many more, killed and injured, hospitals filling to
capacity, often overwhelmed. Mbuyisa eventually went into exile.
That unforgettable afternoon, on my way to work, I took a taxi
to Pimville to check on my daughter. Phumzile, then seven years
old, innocently showed me how ‘the big children, students, said we
must get out!’ Even children that young were ordered out of their
classroom and told to join the protests in the streets.
Turmoil. And, like a wild veld fire, that turmoil grew and grew
and grew until it filled the land. The students’ protest turned into
an uprising and then a revolution and engulfed all youth – those
in school as well as those who were not. The shooting in Soweto
sparked a massive national agitation and soon, even adults were
involved, politicians leading the rest. The fire of discontent had
spread everywhere. It crackled and sizzled throughout the country,
reaching urban and rural areas, big cities and small towns, dorpies
Pages 109-112 of Thembi Mtshali-Jones’s Theatre Road: My Story as told to Sindiwe Magona.