Saturday 16 June 2018

Remembering First Insurrection of 1976-1977

The notorious Brigadier Theuns "Rooi Rus" Swanepoel

There are many things forgotten or deliberately obscured and distorted about the "Soweto Uprising of June 16 1976". For one thing, it was in fact far wider and longer process than its celebration today suggests: it was a nationwide anti-apartheid insurrection over 1975-1977. For another, the spark that initiated it was not, as usually claimed, a schoolchildren's protest against being instructed in Afrikaans (though that was drawn into the mix later), but by working class Soweto residents in January protesting the dramatic increase in rates and services charges imposed by the Western Services Council after the all-white Johannesburg City Council ended its R2-million/year subsidy to it. Then, the students joining the protest in June were not high school pupils but  junior school kids - the protest picked up by the elder kids later. Next, Brigadier Theunis "Rooi Rus" Swanepoel who lead the riot cops against the students in a brutal and murderous fashion was a notorious police torturer who is alleged to have personally executed UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold after the latter survived his 1961 air-crash in Zaire in 1998. Also, the Insurrection has been misappropriated in memory as an ANC-inspired uprising, but to the extent that any ideology was dominant at that time, it was Black Consciousness not Charterism. Lastly, according to protest leader Selby Semela, the student leader usually upheld as the hero of the hour, Tietso Mashinini, was actually stoned by fellow students for asking them to back down in the face of police fire. 

Here are some harrowing reminiscences of two of my friends of the fateful day:

Izak Khomo: “I was in Britain on the 16th June 1976, Cardiff to be precise. At 21:00hrs after coming back from the pub and having bought a pasty and chips I sat before a television which had been liberated by a Capetonian friend Gordon, or rather he inherited the TV which had been initially liberated by his girlfriend Heather and thereby inherited by me. All same I was watching the News when what comes up us a report of South African Police having gunned down protesting Black students. Then the footage followed; it was shot from within the police lines. I cried, I was on my own and I immediately knew that things will never be the same again.”

Eric Miyeni was 10 years old in 1976 (as was I) and he recalled for me hearing a woman recently tell how her world had been turned upside down as a young girl on that day: “Her elder sister used to hand her clothes down to her, and she had her eye on this turquoise dress; she was actually jealous of her sister for that dress. Then one day she made a plan with the boy down the street, Thabane with the dreamy eyes, to meet at the corner of Kruis and Commissioner at twelve the next day. It was her first date, and her sister said 'here' and held out the turquoise dress. So she was wearing that dress in the taxi, her face pressed against the window and a smile on her face. She got to Kruis and Commissioner and waited. Twelve, then one, and no sign of Thabane. By four o'clock it was plain he wasn't coming so she took a taxi home and this time her face was sad. When she arrived she heard some boys talking; Thabane had been shot. So she never had that date; and that's how it was; some people were going on a date and it just never happened.”