In South Africa, the black settlement known as the South Western Townships, or Soweto for short, gets even colder because the township is situated in a valley. Back in the day, most houses had coal stoves and chimneys spewing smoke into the sky, and from miles away one could see a “cloud of smoke” as the heavy cold air blocked the smoke from finding its normal way into the air.
The events of 16 June 1976 in Soweto sent shock waves around the world. The school boycotts spread across the borders into Namibia where many pupils were expelled from school because of their solidarity with their comrades in arms across the Orange River. These events are very vivid in my mind as they have shaped the course of the struggle in South Africa and Namibia.
In terms of political history, Namibia is a carbon copy of South Africa, especially with regard to the segregation of black and white races, and the obnoxious education system known as Bantu Education. The white man who was killing black people in South Africa was the same white man doing the same thing in Namibia.
It is important to create a context for what happened on that cold morning of 16 June 1976. The Natives Land Act of 1913 was the first piece of legislation that formalised the dispossession of black people, as it decreed that only 13% of the entire land mass of South Africa could be owned by black people; from 100% land ownership by blacks before Jan van Riebeeck, to only 13% in 1913!
The Pass Laws Act of 1952 made it compulsory for all black people over the age of 16 to carry a “pass book” at all times within white areas. This dompass stipulated where, when, and for how long a person could remain in the white areas. Thus, on 26 June 1952, the ANC launched the Defiance Campaign, where all the oppressed people of South Africa decided to engage in civil disobedience by refusing to carry passes, amongst other actions.
Eight years later, these actions culminated in the Sharpeville Massacre on 21 March 1960, when, under the leadership of Robert Sobukwe, the police opened fire on black people who were demonstrating against the pass laws, killing more than 69 people. This happened barely three months after our own people had been gunned down at the Old Location on 10 December 1959. In both countries, these events heralded the period of mass torture and detentions of the leaders by the authorities, leading to the launch of the armed struggle, spearheaded by PLAN (Swapo), POQO (PAC) and Umhkonto we Siswe (ANC). Robben Island became the most notorious detention centre for South African and Namibian freedom fighters.
The culture of resistance and uprising had thus been well established by the time the pupils from Soweto decided to tackle the apartheid bull by its horns. The immediate trigger for the uprising was the Afrikaans Medium Decree of 1974 that forced all black schools to use Afrikaans and English in a 50-50 mix as languages of instruction: from 1 January 1975, Afrikaans had to be used for mathematics, arithmetic, and social studies from standard five (7th grade), and English would be the medium of instruction for general science and practical subjects (homecraft, needlework, woodwork, metalwork, art, agricultural science).
The Action Committee of the Soweto Students’ Representative Council’s (SSRC), under the auspices of the Black Consciousness Movement led by Steve Bantu Biko, organised a mass rally to be held at the Orlando Stadium on 16 June 1976. Firebrand student leader, Tsietsi Mashinini, was instrumental in organising the march, starting from Morris Isaacson High School and joining others along the way. They sang freedom songs and waved placards saying “Down with Afrikaans”, “Viva Azania” and “If we must do Afrikaans, Vorster must do Zulu”.
More and more pupils joined the march and soon there were more than 20,000 children in the streets of Soweto. The police first let their dogs loose on the pupils, and in self-defence the pupils stoned some of the dogs to death. Colonel Kleingeld then fired the first shot thereby turning the streets of Soweto into killing fields. A 12-year old boy by the name of Hector Pieterson was the first to fall when he was shot at near Orlando West High School. Close to 700 children were killed in cold blood on that cold morning.
Most of us have seen the famous photo taken by veteran photographer, Sam Nzima, showing the lifeless body of Hector Pieterson in the arms of Mbuyisa Makhubu, with Hector’s sister, Antoinette, seen crying uncontrollably as she ran along to the clinic where Hector was declared dead. This picture made headlines across the world and helped to put faces and names to the statistics of those that were killed on that fateful winter morning.
I cry every time I see this picture, but it also makes me determined that justice shall prevail someday, and there will be full restitution. The blood of our people crying to the heavens shall not be in vain. No. No. You cannot kill a human being and then expect to live normally thereafter. Every crime has its own punishment and I am convinced that those with blood on their hands shall pay for their heinous crimes against humanity.
Many of us studied in South Africa during the heyday of apartheid, so and we walked the streets of Soweto during our varsity days. We participated in the struggles of students on campuses across South Africa, and we learned how to toyi-toyi. Our struggles are one indeed.
Just like Peter Tosh, my blood runs cold when I remember the cold-blooded murder of our people on that cold morning of 16 June 1976.