A look back on Soweto's lesson Protest: When South African officials tried to force the language of apartheid's inventors on black students in Soweto in 1976, the students offered a lesson in protest.


SOWETO, South Africa -- Twenty years ago this week, the children of Soweto taught their parents the dangerous game that eventually led to their freedom.

It was the dangerous, serious game of protest.

What was being protested then was a rule that schools teach their students in Afrikaans, the language of the whites who invented apartheid. But the protests could have been about many things. Blacks needed passes to be anywhere other than their penned-in areas. Almost every white expected deferential respect.

The Afrikaans language rule had been around for several years but went largely ignored. Then the two whites in charge of black education in the Johannesburg area decided that a rule was a rule and began to enforce it. Many of the teachers were not really fluent in the language themselves. Education became that much more difficult. Students began complaining. The school year in South Africa starts in January. By June the complaints had gone through the established channels, from parent-teacher organizations to the equivalent of local school boards to what were then called the Bantu education authorities. Nothing was done.

"The students complained that their parents weren't able to accomplish anything," says John Kane-Berman, who was a journalist in 1976 and wrote a book about what ensued. "And, really, they were right."

Students started groups around the issue. A few organizations tried to warn that trouble was brewing, but the government chose to ignore the danger.

So authorities were caught by surprise when students began emptying out of schools on June 16, 1976, and marching through the streets of Soweto. The plan apparently was to head to a soccer stadium to hold a rally.

But a small group of police confronted the largest of the student groups. Some rocks might have been thrown. There were reports that a police dog was killed. Whatever the reason, the police soon opened fire on an essentially peaceful crowd of youngsters.

The first to die was 13-year-old Hector Peterson. A photograph of his lifeless body being carried through the streets was sent around the world.

"What happened in Soweto that day alerted the government and a big majority of the whites in this country as well as most of the outside world to the absolute hatred that black people had for that whole oppressive system," says Kane-Berman, now head of the South Africa Institute of Race Relations.

"It was tragic in the sense that authority broke down so completely that we now have to deal with problems that flow from that. The continuing lack of discipline in schools, the turmoil and chaos in the townships, boycotts, general lawlessness, these all had their origins in 1976.

"But sooner or later, there had to be an explosion."

Poppy Buthelezi is still dealing with problems that began in 1976. She is reminded of them every time she comes to work, at the place where she joined in a rally that day after leaving class.

Students in her part of Soweto gathered in a large open area that was used as a park. It was a winter day in the high veld, so chilly in the morning but warm in the midday sun. Buthelezi handed her sweater and books to a friend.

"After we heard Hector Peterson had been shot, people got angry," she says. "They started attacking any official vehicles, buses." Buthelezi went home to avoid the trouble. Later in the afternoon, she headed for her friend's house to retrieve her sweater and books.

She was walking down a street with a group of friends when a police car came around the corner. "By then the police had scattered all over the township," she says. Gunfire erupted from the car. The students fled. Buthelezi was shot in the upper back. She was unconscious in the hospital for three days. She has been in a wheelchair ever since.

A year later, she returned to school. In 1981, she became involved in opening a self-help center for paraplegics in Soweto. It was built on the open land where she had joined in the rally in 1976. She is 37 now, and director of human resources there. There used to be about a dozen victims of police violence at the center. But now there is only Buthelezi and Amelia Molapo.

Molapo was in second grade at a Roman Catholic school on June 16, 1976, when students were sent home around 10 a.m. As she was walking home, a police armored vehicle came down the street. Shots were fired from it. Amelia was hit in the back. She was put in a taxi and taken to Soweto's Baragwanath hospital.

"When my mother was told, she had a heart attack," Molapo says. "She died the next day."

For the next few years, Molapo was in and out of special schools and hospitals. Now she works at the Soweto center, putting toiletries in packages that are destined for the bathrooms of a fancy game lodge.

"If I wasn't shot, my mother would be alive," she says, breaking down in tears. "So it affected two people in our family."

By the end of June 16, Soweto was in flames. The damage was mainly confined to government buildings. Liquor stores were also hit. Many students wanted to destroy what they saw as a disease inflicted on their community, but plenty of drinkers took advantage of the situation. Death by alcohol poisoning was common over the next few weeks.

About 20,000 students took part in the demonstrations. There were 176 deaths in Soweto within a week. Within two months, 80 black communities had erupted, all over the country. Within four months, the figure rose to 160.

Political organizations tried to take credit, but June 16 was really a home-grown movement nurtured by Soweto's students. Most came from the Black Consciousness Movement led by Steve Biko, who would be killed by police in September 1977. But when thousands of youth fled South Africa fearing arrest, only the African National Congress had an organization in exile that could receive them.

The ANC proved ineffectual as a military force, but the fighting in the townships -- the population centers that the ANC vowed to make "ungovernable" -- became an enormous burden for the apartheid government.

Solomon Sikakane, 69, would seem to be a victim of that ungovernability. He was an elementary school principal in 1976 and is glad that all his students made it home safely when he dismissed school early that day. In subsequent years, student leaders regularly appeared in his hallways to announce school boycotts.

"It was a sad day because so many students died," Sikakane says of June 16. "But it was a good day because it started us on the road to this transformation.

"I wouldn't have this if it wasn't for that day," he says, looking around the bookstore he runs in Soweto's shopping mall. "Back then if you wanted to open a business, they made you go to the homelands.

"Now look at this. It was a good day."

Four years ago, South African President Nelson Mandela dedicated a monument to Hector Peterson on the spot where he was shot. And students no longer go to school on June 16. It's a holiday called Youth Day.

Pub Date: 6/20/96

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