“I Saw a Nightmare…”
Doing Violence to Memory: The Soweto Uprising, June 16, 1976
by Helena Pohlandt-McCormick



When I first began the research for this book, in 1992, only 16 years had passed since the Soweto uprising. Now South Africa has just celebrated the 30th anniversary of the uprising. It is difficult at times to account for the passage of so many years but it is evident that many people have contributed to this work during that time. I have incurred many debts. This book is testimony to those who have stood by my side and who have supported me and contributed to my work for the past 16 years.

Driving through modern Soweto it is sometimes hard to imagine what physical aspect would have stayed with us on that cold winter morning in June, 1976; Soweto has changed even in the past five years, squatter camps have disappeared, parks have greened everywhere, road construction heralds new development, HIV/Aids campaign billboards stand at many corners as reminders of the new challenges South Africa faces. But there are reminders of the past: physical ones like looming light masts and bullet holes in the red brick walls of township houses, and photographic ones that allow us to swirl back through time and look through their window into the past. This book would not be the same without the many photographs that provide both illustration and depth in time. Images provide us with a sense of the layeredness of experience, of the way physical surroundings change and remain the same over time. An image, grainy with age perhaps, or faded with time, can take us back visually, but also provides a contrast to the present. For the use of photographs taken through time I would like to thank the National Archives and Verne Harris, my late step father Derek Watson, Roger Swan and Sifiso Ndlovu, who helped me photographically retrace the steps of the students and walk the landscape of the Soweto uprising.

My thank you goes to the nameless (police) photographers who documented the uprising—their work provided valuable insight into the state's point of view and a chilling foil to the images taken by Sam Nzima, Peter Magubane and other black photographers who have left us with many striking historical photographs of the uprising. For his patience crisscrossing Soweto with me in search of the landmarks of the past and for the captivating images that day produced, my deepest gratitude to Roger Swan. For his remarkable photographic vision, now lost to us but captured in some of the images here, I would also like to remember and acknowledge the work of my late father, Derek Watson.

Reluctant to be responsible for yet another (mis)appropriation, I searched for Sam Nzima to secure permission to use his photograph of Hector Pieterson as well as to hear his story. I did not want to repeat the disrespect of others towards Mr. Nzima, but despite numerous attempts, it seemed impossible to reach him. Many years after I completed the dissertation, I visited the Hector Pieterson Museum with a group of students from St. Olaf College in Northfield. As I had done some work for the museum, the curator welcomed my students and myself and—a few minutes later—introduced me to the gentleman who had been standing at his side: Sam Nzima. After a long conversation, in which I explained my work and my understanding of the history of the photograph, he very kindly agreed to permit me to use his famous photograph in the book. My warmest thanks go to him and to the American Historical Association for covering the royalty fees for this image and for thus making it possible to place the photograph centrally in this book.


The Gutenberg-e Award of the American Historical Association, the Mellon Foundation and Columbia University Press has made the publication of this book, the creation of the digital archive associated with it, and its translation into the electronic medium possible. For their vision and the challenge of its execution, their financial, technical, organizational and conceptual support, as well as for their patience and partnership in this daunting project, I am grateful to Kate Wittenberg, Gordon Dahlquist, Nick Frankovich (for his meticulous copy-editing and for helping me see both the trees and the forest), Sean Costigan, Karen Sabino Desiderio, David Millman, and Jim Burger at EPIC (Electronic Publishing Initiative at Columbia) and Columbia University Press; Robert Darnton, Pillarisetti Sudhir, Elizabeth Fairhead and Robert Townsend at the American Historical Association; my fellow Gutenberg-e authors whose work around the big table in Butler Library was a source of inspiration and support; and Sharene Azimi, Vyn Raskopf and no doubt many people behind the scenes/screens, who helped pick up the pieces, and carried this project to completion with a sense of urgency and dedication.

This book could not have been written without the support, help and encouragement of friends, family, colleagues and mentors past and present in South Africa, in Germany and in the United States. First, I wish to thank my adviser, Allen Isaacman, whose guidance, friendship and intellectual support have accompanied me throughout the years of my graduate education and far beyond. From the beginning, his own background as a committed activist academic has meant that he has understood and supported both my academic historical work and my deep emotional and political commitment to change in South Africa. His imagination, superb editing, and constructive and often challenging criticism was balanced with consistent personal support.

If it was Allen who set the sights, it was Jean Allman who set the pace. My thanks to her for her warm support during the important writing year that Allen was on sabbatical, for her continued faith in my work, and for her unfailing sense of perspective.

In South Africa, my deepest thanks and respect go to my adviser, Charles van Onselen who was my gracious host and academic support at the Institute for Advanced Social Research (formerly the African Studies Institute) of the University of the Witwatersrand during the now distant time of my fieldwork. His sharp intellectual advice and generosity, as well as his wisdom to push me to write at crucial moments while still in the field, were invaluable. His concrete and practical suggestions in response to my questions and his support of my application for access to closed files in the State Archives in Pretoria were invaluable. The "Mother of the Children" thanks you.

I also wish to thank the other members of my original dissertation committee: Mary Jo Maynes, August Nimtz, and especially Phil Porter, who graciously replaced Susan Geiger on my examining committee at the last minute. Susan Geiger read most of the chapters critically and gave me many thoughtful comments. I grieve her loss deeply, but know that the memory of her is in every page of this book.


I am grateful to the University of Minnesota and the MacArthur Program on Peace and International Cooperation (now the MacArthur Interdisciplinary Program on Global Change, Sustainability and Justice) for their generous financial support of my research. A Special Dissertation Grant and a Grant for Research Abroad from the University, a travel grant from the History Department, as well as a MacArthur Predissertation Fieldwork Grant supported me in the planning stages of my work. My lengthy fieldwork in South Africa was generously funded by an international Research and Writing Grant of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Upon my return, a University Dissertation Fellowship permitted time off from teaching and supported the writing of the dissertation on which this book is based. The MacArthur Program on Peace and International Cooperation was my intellectual home throughout and I would like to thank especially Jim Johnson, Chilundo Arlindo, Premesh Lalu, Therona Moodley, and Udesh Pillay.

There are many to thank in South Africa: First, my thanks to all of the archivists and reading room attendants at the Central Archives Depot of the South African State Archives (now the National Archives and Records Service of South Africa) in Pretoria and to the chief archivist (in the 1990s), J. R. Uys, who graciously granted my request to access the closed files of the Commission of Inquiry Into the Riots in Soweto and Elsewhere. The archivists in the Historical Papers Collection at the University of the Witwatersrand, Michele Pickover, Carol Archibald and Kate Abbott, were similarly helpful and have provided much continuity over the years. More recently, Verne Harris has challenged me to think about the archive in a broader sense, as have Carolyn Hamilton and Antoinette Burton.

Many of my ideas and thoughts were shaped in discussions and conversations with my colleagues and friends in South Africa, foremost among them Steve Lebelo, Phestus Mokae, Ian Ochiltree, Carlotta von Maltzahn, Paul Hendler, Derrick Pieterson, Karin Shapiro, Russel Ally, Santu Mofokeng, Edna Sebake, Zakes Molotsi, Gerald Josman, Mimi Molotsi, Belinda Bozzoli, Matthew Dean, Windsor Leroke, and Albie Sachs. Sifiso Ndlovu, an exceptional historian of the uprising and the struggle against apartheid, has helped me negotiate a path through the archives and museums, as well as through some of the more difficult analytical thought processes of my work. I am grateful to him as a friend and as a colleague. Keith Shear patiently shared the driving on innumerable trips to the archives with me and in the process became a good friend. My family and friends in South Africa, especially my mother, Tina Pohlandt-Watson, Kurt and Heike Ludewig, my sister, Edda Pohlandt and her husband, James Buttle, my sister, Uscha Richartz-Klonaros, Koulla and Neels Coetzee, Andreas and Marianne Wernecke, Hayden McGregor and Barney van Dyk, and in Germany, Ute Holl and Dagmar Wagner, were supportive throughout and provided shelter, sustenance and diversion, both of a figurative and literal kind, consistently as well as during moments of need. Maria Lis Lange, for a while, was my inspiration. I would also like to remember my late fathers, GŁnther Pohlandt and Derek Watson, both of whom I wish could read this book.

Back in the United States, my first word of thanks must go to Michelle Mouton, whose enduring friendship, love and support has sustained me over many miles and through difficult discussion and thought processes. To the members of my writing group, Agnes Odinga, Heidi Gengenbach and Maanda Mulaudzi: you all know best what a feat of perseverance the work at the heart of this book is and I thank you for helping this lonely enterprise on its way to completion. Maanda Mulaudzi, especially, helped me shift the perspective inside the youth movement. Heidi Gengenbach has become a comrade in arms over the years. As a fellow recipient of the Gutenberg-e prize, she has engaged in many virtual battles with me trying to find the right path for our scholarship through the technology, ethics and design challenges of electronic publishing. Beyond that though, her friendship and her keen editor's eye and clarity of thought are tangible and evident in this book and in my life. Victoria Sanford became a fast friend and stimulating intellectual counterpart in the last years of writing the dissertation on which this book is based. Her own experience of the violence in Guatemala made her deeply sympathetic to the grief that sometimes accompanied my work. Anne Gearity graciously listened to all of it, and shared many of her psychologist's insights with me. Tracy van der Leeuw consistently gave me a most precious commodity, time free of the children. Graham van der Leeuw listened with a South African ear at a crucial moment. Uli Strasser and Matthew McCormick supported me along the way, as did the rest of my American family, Sarah and Andrew Morrow and Margaret McCormick-Ritter and Dr. Hugh Ritter. Peter Rosenblum, Mindy Roseman, and Gilla and Rudolf Beckman have been steadfast supporters and have opened their homes and hearts to me. Patrick Queen, thanks for all the sushi. To IHM St. Luke's Theatre, and especially David, Lisa, Lorri and Rich, building sets with you provided welcome creative sustenance of another kind on many long and sometimes dark winter writing days. I would also like to thank Katherine Lanpher, Jane Little, Margaret Jones, Jeff Risberg, Bill and Anne Parker, and Patti, Rick and Sam Dougherty. Their constant humor, friendship and support stayed with me till the end.

At St. Olaf College, my thank you for his friendship and many productive and inspiring conversations that went far beyond the scope of this work goes to Jim Farrell. Thank you also to Jeane Delaney and Todd Nichol for their friendship and to the department of history for providing both an intellectual and a teaching home in the past years. At Carleton College, I would like to thank Harry Williams and Cherif Keita for their support, and especially Nadja Krämer who has been a good friend and colleague.


A special thank you goes to the narrators, or interviewees, or informants—all words that only inadequately capture their importance—who authored the oral histories I have worked with. Their words and their knowledge deeply informed my research and made me more conscious of the history of my country inside all of us.

I would also like to acknowledge the writers, historians, archivists and curators whose work in South Africa's museums, archives and literature has inspired me and deeply informs this book.

Finally, to Michael, and my children, Zindzi and Tristan, who were there from the beginning and always: your brilliance, strength, intellect and humor have been a constant inspiration; by rights this books should have been entitled "Inside Soweto and How it Really Veld"! You have permitted me to interweave your lives with this work and South Africa—any words of gratitude seem inadequate. I dedicate this book to you and to those who helped me break the silences.