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Unsung Heroes of 16 June 1976: Events leading up to the massacre and the teachers and parents who tried to stop it (Daily Maverick) by Marianne Thamm, 18 June 2019

18 June 2019

In 1968, almost eight years before the 1976 student uprisings against the enforcement of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction in township schools, the Broederbond, a secret Afrikaner society, resolved to “Afrikanerise” the black majority.

By the time 1976 rolled around, black parents, teachers, school boards and residents’ associations had tried in vain for at least two years to meet and consult with government officials to warn of the devastating effects of the instruction to teach, in Afrikaans, half of the subjects taught at township schools.

Journalists Ivor Wilkins and Hans Strydom, in their 1978 exposé (later updated in 2012) titled The Super-Afrikaners — Inside the Afrikaner Broederbond set out in detail how — after the Department of Education had in 1974 sent out a circular to schools — headmasters in Soweto protested and had attempted to make representations to the then Minister of Education, MC Botha, a leading Broederbonder.

It was a Mr WD Ackerman, the Department of Bantu Education’s southern Transvaal regional director, who had issued the circular stating Afrikaans was to be used as a medium of instruction for arithmetic, mathematics and social studies while science, woodwork, and arts and crafts could be taught in English.

Students themselves had begun organising immediately after the circular had been sent out in 1974. The South African Students Movement was supported by the Black Consciousness Movement and the South African Students Organisation, which had been formed in 1969.

The African Teachers’ Association wrote to MC Botha warning that the decree was “cruel and shortsighted”, the joint school and committee boards of the southern and northern Transvaal regions, as well as then Bantustan leaders, had also all attempted to meet officials and wrote to then Prime Minister BJ Vorster to reconsider the decree.

“I am not going to consult them,” Deputy Minster of Education Punt Jansen replied to a parliamentary question about the brewing revolt.

Ignoring all pleas and warnings, police finally attempted to violently suppress a peaceful march by 10,000 pupils, initiated by students of Naledi High School, on 16 June.

The march converged on Orlando West Junior Secondary School — where the first strikes had occurred in May — which is where police opened fire on the children, killing at least 23 and injuring hundreds more. By the end of the year, the total number of children who had died is estimated to have been around 173.

It marked a turning point in the growing resistance to apartheid policies in the absence of political leadership who had all either been banned, assassinated or jailed.

And while it was the youth who most certainly led and initiated the pushback, the unsung heroes of the 1976 uprisings are the parents, principals and teachers who, witnessing the anger of a younger generation and understanding the blunt violence of the state, had tried to prevent the massacre with reason and petitions.

At the time the South African Institute of Race Relations, established in 1929 as a liberal policy and research organisation, had drawn up a timeline of events in 1976 leading up to 16 June. The timeline is published in full in Wilkins’ and Strydom’s book.

In January 1976, the Meadowlands Tswana board met at the Moruto-Thuto Lower Primary School where the local white circuit inspector had told the board that the Secretary for Bantu Education “has stated that all direct taxes paid by (the) black population of South Africa are being sent to the various homelands for educational purposes there”.

In a perverse twist of logic the inspector — according to minutes taken at the meeting — told the Meadowlands Tswana board that “in the urban areas the education of the black child is being paid for by the white population, that is English and Afrikaans-speaking groups. Therefore the Secretary for Bantu Education has the responsibility towards satisfying the English and Afrikaans-speaking people”.

Defying the government was a Mr N Nkamela, who proposed that the medium for instruction in schools under the jurisdiction of the Meadowlands Tswana school board would be English. He was seconded by a Mr SG Thwane.

The following month, February, a Mr Letlape and a Mr Peele were both dismissed as teachers for refusing to use Afrikaans as a medium of instruction in their schools. Seven remaining members of the Meadowlands Tswana board resigned in solidarity and protest.

On 24 February Junior Certificate students at Thomas Mofolo Secondary School clashed verbally with their principal over the medium of instruction. Police were called in to suppress the revolt.

On 14 March parents of pupils at the Donaldson Higher Primary rejected the use of Afrikaans while on 26 April a delegation from the African Teachers’ Association of South Africa presented a memorandum to the Secretary for Bantu education who promised the matter “would be reviewed by the Department”.

On 30 April, members of the Opposition in the House of Assembly had called for the government to allow black students to choose the language of instruction in which they sought to be educated.

On 17 May students at the Orlando West Junior Secondary School went on strike. Two days later a committee of students from Orlando West presented a five-point memorandum to their principal. The same day students from the Belle Higher Primary joined the strike.

On 22 May, while the Department had undertaken to address issues raised, parents and school board members decided they would ask students to return to school while the matter was receiving “attention”.

Two days later, striking pupils ignored the Orlando-Diepkloof school board’s pleas that they should return to school. They were joined by students from Pimville Higher Primary and Khulangolwazi Higher Primary.

On 25 May the director of the Institute of Race Relations warned that he was “deeply concerned” about the growing resistance and potential for violent repression and asked one of its board members to bring the matter to the attention “of the Minister concerned” to prevent bloodshed.

Throwing all caution to the wind, denying that the imposition of Afrikaans was the problem while displaying a monumental miscalculation of what was actually happening, Deputy Minister of Bantu Education Dr Andries Treurnicht responded that “the problem with regard to the strike of pupils in Soweto is being dealt with on a low level at the moment, and negotiations have not yet reached a point of deadlock”.

Treurnicht added that the matter had also not been referred to the Secretary of the Department “although this might happen later”.

“We will determine what the contributory causes are, but at the moment it is said that the pupils are striking because the teachers (according to the children?) are not capable of teaching subjects in Afrikaans!”

The arrogance of wilful blindness triumphed for the moment.

On 26 May the Institute of Race Relations reported that the principals and teachers at Orlando High School were being intimidated by a circuit inspector, a Mr De Beer. The following day the first “violent incident” was recorded at Pimville Higher Primary School when an Afrikaans teacher, Mr K Tshablana, was stabbed by a student with a screwdriver.

On 1 June students of the Senaonane Junior School joined the strikes. Two days later learners at Emthonjene, Belle, Thulasizwe and Pimville returned to school after being told that lessons taught in Afrikaans would be suspended.

For the next 11 days, police began to raid schools and intimidate, arrest and interrogate students. Students responded by stoning police vehicles and setting them alight. Still, the government refused to acknowledge the severity of the situation with Treurnicht stating that he was certain “the matter would be amicably settled”.

A Dr Mathlare that month announced the formation of the Soweto Residents Association, with its launch date set for 4 July 1976, with a committee elected to “fully represent Soweto parents in matters concerning the recent school strikes”.

He added:

“We reject Afrikaans as a medium of instruction because it is the language of the oppressor.”

On 14 June, Councillor Leonard Mosala fatefully warned that the continued enforcement of the language policy could result “in another Sharpeville”.

Two days later, on 16 June 1976, the state responded to the demands of the students with live ammunition. The first child to be killed was the 16-year-old Hector Petersen.

Police and army reinforcements were sent to Soweto as student protests and strikes continued and then spread to Alexandra, Vosloorus, Boksburg, Kathlehong, Mahlakeng and Kagiso. White students at Wits and the University of Natal joined the protests. By 21 June, Mamelodi, Atteridgeville, Hammanskraal and Mabopane in Pretoria and the East Rand townships of KwaThema, Daveyton, Duduza and Wattville joined the resistance.

As student protests and strikes spread throughout the country, the government and the Broederbond denied that the 50/50 language policy had been the spark to the flame. They blamed instead “Black Power movements”.

The 1976 Soweto student uprisings were an early attempt by young black South Africans to decolonise education with some placards reading:

“If we must do Afrikaans, Vorster must do Zulu.”

It was the historical animosity between the descendants of white English and Dutch-speaking (later Afrikaans) colonists that led to the attempt in the late 1960s by the apartheid government to Afrikanerise not only English-speaking whites and immigrants, but also the black majority.

Wounds were nursed, cultivated and remembered from the 1899-1902 South African War. British colonial rulers had also initiated a policy of Anglicisation, implemented by Lord Charles Somerset when he proclaimed English as the official language of the Cape, which became a British colony in 1806.

It was British High Commissioner, Lord Alfred Milner, who furthered the Anglicisation project. Edmund Beale, the then education secretary, believed he could win over “the young generation of Dutch Africanders to English ways of thought and speech and to English ideas of truthfulness and loyalty.”

A “total immersion programme” was embarked on.

Having suffered under a policy of enforced assimilation by the British, Afrikaners, years later, applied the same policy to the black majority.

In 1968, the Broederbonders had set out their dream of forcing the black majority to accept Afrikaans and not English as a second official language. This had to be done, they said, as the “majority of people in the Republic of South Africa speak Afrikaans and because “Bantu workers make far more contact with Afrikaans-speakers, for example in the mines, industry, farming, commerce, etc.”

The Broeders wrote that “experience has shown that the Bantu find it much easier to learn Afrikaans than English, and that they succeed in speaking the language purely, faultlessly and without an accent. There are even a few Afrikaans-speaking officials and principals.”

It noted that the lecturing and administrative personnel, in what formed part of a massive programme of Afrikaner affirmative action, were “100% Afrikaans-speaking.”

“Let the Bantu understand in all circumstances that Afrikaans is the language of most whites and also the most important whites.”

Schools, with the introduction of the Bantu Education Act, were to become vital points of oppression and the final dream of the Afrikanerisation of the black majority.

It was the students and the youth of the 1970s who put paid to the grand scheme and in the end they triumphed.

The rigorous enforcement of Afrikaans in township schools was finally scrapped, but at great cost. In June we celebrate not only the youth but the teachers, principals and parents who stood by their sons and daughters.