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


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The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) created a new context for the retrieval and dissemination of historical evidence. Among the documents of the Cillié Commission, there was also a large collection of black and white photographs, many of them painstakingly pasted into large hard-board books, divided geographically by region in South Africa and by neighborhoods in townships, beginning with Soweto, but including photographs from many other townships around South Africa as well. With the funding provided by the Gutenberg-e Prize (2000), and with the full support of the National Archives and its then Chief, Verne Harris, I have compiled a new archive of 1,300 digital images of the 1976 Soweto uprising from the historical collections. These documents—the placards, posters and hand-written letters, as well as historical police documents and black and white police photographs produced at the time of uprising—provide a unique and rarely seen record both of the violence of the uprising and of its brutal suppression, and give a strong sense of "Soweto" as a place in time and geography.

It is my hope that this archive and the documents and images it contains will be an accessible and rich resource for researchers as well as for those whose history this is. In response to recent discussions, particularly in South Africa, but certainly relevant elsewhere, about the appropriation of archival and other historical materials by scholars based outside of Africa, I have deposited a copy of these materials at the National Archives and Records Service of South Africa (NARS) in Pretoria and at the new Hector Pieterson Memorial Museum in Soweto, where they form the basis of a new historical images archive to be made available there to the community and to scholars.

The documents—especially those of student participants in the uprising—belong in South Africa, where those who produced them and whose history this is, must have untrammeled access to them. The creation of this database is but a small return for the many stories of the uprising South Africans have shared with me. Images from this collection have already been used by the curatorial team of the Hector Pieterson Memorial Museum Project to select photographs for the museum. The National Archive will use the collection as part of its archives' outreach program for young scholars in South African high schools and universities.

Although the presentation of all of these image and text materials in the electronic format of an e-book may raise the possibility of the appropriation or misuse of these materials, it is my understanding that this archive and my work will counter the history of concealment and exclusion in South African archives, which echoes other forms of silencing. This material is protected by the licensing agreement which controls access to the archive through this electronic book. I trust that users will observe the ethics of good research among scholars and students in archives and museums and that they will treat these materials with the respect and care they deserve as originals documents whose ultimate home is in South Africa and with the people who produced them.

The archive is designed as a searchable database with detailed information about each image and document. Many of these images illustrate this book and provide a contemporaneous window into the Soweto uprising but others, documents especially, allow the reader to track my argument and look at the original materials that supported my research and my analysis.

Prominent in the collection are police statements and affidavits. Police statements, as much as police testimony, have an agenda, and despite their apparent formality and what perhaps may even have been their original intent (under "normal" conditions) to set out the facts of an incident, they are not simply evidence, and quite certainly not uncompounded proof. In the South African case, because of the complicity of the police in the implementation of the racist order, such files were inherently tainted. They were, in this particular case of the uprising, further contaminated by their underlying purpose: to provide a record that would allow proof of the appropriateness, legitimacy and justifiability of police action. While the extent of the taint may have been novel, its existence certainly was not. Documents are never innocent. These documents reveal something of the efficiency with which their fierce biases combined with their claim to authoritativeness to produce powerful official statements. To ignore such sources would be, amongst other things, to ignore the main axiom of historical research, to use all sources possible, but to treat none uncritically. It would also mean that we would fail to see historical actors and witnesses standing their ground and contradicting, countering and contesting the institutions that sought to disempower them—not always successfully. Finally, these statements—from inside the belly of the beast—allow some insight into how coercive structures thought and practices functioned. These too are voices of participants in the uprising—those on the other side of the political divide. Police statements, much like other sources produced by government officials, were constrained by their own experiential context, shaped by their own world view, and carried their own assumptions within them.

The police photographs are now part of the public record in the archives. Collectively, the photographs present a complex picture of the consequences of the physical violence of the uprising and the material damage that was its end result: destroyed government administration buildings, burnt out delivery trucks, ransacked beer halls and bottle stores, shattered windows, hijacked public busses, hastily scrawled graffiti. But there are also images of confrontations between police and students, shattered bodies, smoking buildings.

Some of these documents fill gaps in oral testimonies. Three full folders of photographs preserved a very suggestive list of demonstration slogans from which to study the echoes and influences from the writings, movements and antecedent cultural forms, as well as to garner some insight on their historical relevance. For most young demonstrators at the time, resistance and political protest was a memory and experience of their parents. From the historical perspective, it is relevant that slogans were often re-invented by the young people and school children and used in a radically new context, with changed significances, with simultaneously new allusions and old references, and sometimes with different meanings.

Finally, autopsy reports conducted by the government's medical examiners and autopsy photographs in this collections are sources that provide some of the most graphic and inescapable evidence of the physical violence that confronted the participants in the uprising. In the face of evidence contained in these reports, neither the identity of the victim nor the fact of his or her death could be challenged or remain hidden. In addition to the irrefutable factual evidence they contain, these harsh documents at last provide a vocabulary so stark in its implications that it is equal to the task of rendering the violence of Soweto. The meticulousness with which autopsies were tracked through the bureaucracy of death leaves no doubt as to the capacity for painstaking exactitude of procedure on the part of the responsible authorities. This must of course raise grave suspicions about the frequency with which so many bodies disappeared temporarily or permanently, and suggests deliberate procedure rather than mistake or confusion.