“I Saw a Nightmare…”
Doing Violence to Memory: The Soweto Uprising, June 16, 1976
by Helena Pohlandt-McCormick
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Cillié Report Volume 1


Until 1974, Bantu education had a thirteen-year structure; there were eight primary classes and five secondary classes. A year later, the change-over to a twelve-year structure took place. Thenceforth there were to be six primary and six secondary classes. The secondary classes were to consist of the old Std V and the five forms. Standard VI was to disappear. Although Std V was the first secondary class, it was not possible for the time being to transfer it to the buildings of secondary schools. Physically, it had to remain in primary school buildings. The policy of equal use of Afrikaans and English as media of instruction applied to Std V, which was accommodated in the primary school building. In Soweto this meant that the number of schools that had to carry out this policy, even if only in one class, grew from 39 to 160. The Department and its officials deserve praise for the manner in which they ensured continuity in the change-over and prevented chaos. In the higher primary schools, where teachers now also had to teach the secondary Std V class in accordance with the policy of equal use, things did not go so smoothly everywhere.

2.4 The organised resistance to Afrikaans as a medium of instruction.

2.4.1 General.

These paragraphs are confined mainly to the actions and the organisation of scholars in Soweto. Similar activities in Kagiso are also mentioned. In other areas there was not the same degree of organisation focused on the use of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction, and the first signs of any objections to or grievances about this policy did not become evident until the disturbances broke out.


Although the resistance to Afrikaans as a medium of instruction was organised and carried out mainly by scholars, the role of the parents is also important. Many parents covertly supported the pupils; they were unco-operative, and some of their leaders were deliberately obstreperous and militant. But when it was decided at a meeting of parents and others held late in May that scholars who were staying, away from classes had to return to their schools, this appeal was disregarded.

2.4.3 Pupils' actions.

On 24 February, pupils at the Thomas Mofolo Secondary School started an altercation with their principal about Afrikaans as a medium of instruction. The dispute was so violent that the police had to intervene. The BPC, which had decided that SASM and other Black Consciousness organisations had to use the so-called imposition of Afrikaans as a means of making the Black public sensitive to and conscious of such matters, could not obtain the co-operation of the Principal of the Thomas Mofolo School to hold a public meeting about the question of the medium of instruction. Organising activities to promote SASM were initiated, and Motapanyane addressed the pupils of the Naledi High School on this subject.


The parents of pupils at the Diepkloof Junior Secondary School, at which the equal use of the media of instruction was being applied, met on 13 March to discuss an application for exemption from the use of Afrikaans. The Chairman, who was also Chairman of the school board, instructed the teachers to use English only as the medium of instruction until such time as a reply was received to this application. The next day, the use of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction was unanimously rejected at a parents' meeting of the Donaldson Higher Primary School.


Two higher primary school principals and a secondary school principal were dismissed by the Tsonga school board. This led to demonstrations, class boycotts and even stone-throwing at the three schools concerned in April. Political motives and the policy on the medium of instruction were linked to these dismissals.


On 16 May, the Principal of the Phefeni Junior Secondary School advised the circuit inspector that his pupils refused to attend classes because they were opposed to Afrikaans as a medium of instruction. The next day, pupils at the Orlando West School started a boycott, threw stones at the Principal's office and deflated his car tyres. The question of the medium of instruction was one of the reasons for their conduct. This strike was continued the next day and was accompanied by violence. The Vice-Principal had to be protected against the pupils. On the third day, the pupils set out their grievances in a letter to the Regional Director but refused to return to their classes.

That same day the pupils at the Belle Higher Primary School started a boycott. The next day three other schools joined the Belle School. These four schools were feeder schools of the Phefeni Junior Secondary School. The pupils incited one another; there were marches and demonstrations in the streets, and at one school the gates were locked to keep out teachers and pupils who wanted to go to school.


At the end of the third week in May there were about 1 600 pupils who were not attending classes. At a parents' meeting held on 22 May, an appeal was made for scholars to return to school while their grievances were being looked into. Most of the striking schoolchildren took no notice of this appeal; on the contrary, about 300 pupils at the Pimville Higher Primary School started a boycott. They were antagonistic towards teachers who taught subjects in Afrikaans. According to a newspaper in which the latest boycott was discussed, the BPC had stated that this matter was a Black national struggle; this organisation applauded the scholars for their stand and said that they were being called upon to fight the battles that their parents should have fought long ago. According to a newspaper report a few days later, the BPC denied any responsibility for the scholars' actions.


During the last week-end of May, SASM held a conference in Roodepoort. At this conference it was stated that the school boycott against the use of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction was a sign of opposition to schools' systematized producing of 'good industrial boys' for the powers that be'. It was decided to reject the use of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction, to support those scholars who had taken a stand for the rejection 'of this dialect', and to condemn the racially separated educational system. It is not known which government body was the first to learn of these resolutions, when this happened, and whether information was passed on to any other authorities.


On 1 June, the pupils at the Senaoane Junior Secondary School refused to attend classes as a protest against the use of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction. On the other hand, pupils at four other schools began to attend classes again. Some of them were jeered at and pelted with stones; the police had to protect those who had gone back to school. Pupils hurled stones at the Belle School; here, too, the police had to intervene, and the station commander at Orlando notified his headquarters. A scholar was arrested later in connection with the stone-throwing.


On 8 and 9 June, pupils at the Naledi High School threw stones at policemen who had come to carry out an investigation at the school. According to the police, they wanted to have a word with a pupil about certain documents that had been found at the place where he lived, but youth leaders said that this pupil was the secretary of the SASM branch at the school and had been involved in the school boycotts.


During the days that followed, pupils refused to write examinations, and pupils from other schools who wanted to go back to school were assaulted. Pamphlets relating to a meeting that was to be held at the DOCC Hall near the Orlando police station were also distributed by SASM members. This meeting was attended by 300 to 400 scholars. It was decided to stage a mass march of pupils from all schools on 16 June, the day on which high schools were to commence examinations. The demonstration was to be planned, organised and controlled by an action committee. The action committee was subsequently renamed the SSRC. During the next few days, all the necessary arrangements were made with schools in connection with the staging of this march, the making of placards, resistance to the police, and other matters in connection with the demonstration. Numerous meetings were held, mainly at schools. There were also discussions between the leaders of the scholars and a group of adults.


In February, PAC members founded a branch of the YACM, later known as the YARM, in Kagiso near Soweto. Its members were scholars and other youths, and they were under the leadership of the PAC. During May, the leaders began to organise a revolt by scholars; they were to be joined by adults, and this revolt was to spread throughout the country. They were to begin with attacks on Government buildings on 17 June, but before they could act, the rioting in Soweto had spread to Kagiso.


2.5 The official handling of the resistance.


In handling the resistance, the Department's officials had to deal with riotous scholars and unco-operative parents. The schoolchildren were fired with enthusiasm and their parents had a measure of sympathy with their aspirations. Later, when the parents wanted to control their children, they no longer had any influence over them. Meanwhile, the measures taken by the officials were ineffectual.


To the officials, there were two distinct aspects to the trouble; one was the policy on the medium of instruction, and the other was the resistance of the pupils. They had to apply the policy, and it would seem that their application of it became more and more strict. This impression was partly due to the increase in the number of applications for exemption and the resultant increase in the number of refusals. Neither they nor the parents could change the policy itself. It was said to be a professional matter in which the policy-makers alone had the say. It therefore did not seem necessary to them to discuss the matter with parents, leaders, and educationists. Apparently the fact that school boards had been asked a few years before to make recommendations in connection with this policy was lost sight of. It must be added, however, that 61% of the school boards in the Transvaal were in favour of the equal use of Afrikaans and English as media of instruction. However, this did not mean that problems could not be discussed with them.


The pupils' conduct was a matter for the school boards. These boards had been directed to negotiate with the striking scholars and to see to it that classes were attended again. It is not clear how much room for manoeuvre they had in such negotiations, since concessions in regard to the policy were out of the question. A promise that grievances would be submitted to the authorities for consideration may not be enough for impatient strikers.


The Commission considers that the discussions at two meetings attended by the Regional Director on 7 and 8 June clearly show how officials of the Department handled the resistance to the medium of instruction policy in Soweto. At the first meeting, the Regional Director received a deputation from the Urban Bantu Council. These discussions had been arranged by the Chief Director of WRAB. He had been given the impression that the Regional Director was unwilling to meet the deputation. The second meeting was convened by the Chief Bantu Affairs Commissioner, and in addition to the Regional Director of the Department and the Chief Director of WRAB, three SAP officers were present. The Regional Director believed that the meeting had been convened to criticise him or his section for their actions in connection with the resistance. The Commission found that this was not the case.


At the first meeting, the Regional Director stated that the school boards had accepted responsibility for ending the boycott and that the Department could therefore do nothing about the matter. When he testified, he could no longer remember whether only the administrative functions of school boards had been discussed or whether they had also considered the so-called professional question of the medium of instruction, which was dealt with by professionals only and could not be discussed with laymen. The Commission accepts that both these matters were discussed. The Regional Director's attitude was that the policy of equal use of the media of instruction had been introduced because White taxpayers were financing Bantu education and that the taxes paid by urban Blacks went to the homelands. This justification of the policy had also been put forward previously at various other places. It was sometimes also said, as was done at the second meeting, that if Black children were not satisfied with the system, they could stay away since school attendance was not compulsory. On other occasions it was said that parents could send their children to schools in the homelands. The Commission considers it unnecessary to comment on the accuracy of these statements and their appropriateness in the circumstances, and will confine itself to the observation that such statements and a take it or leave it attitude were certainly not likely to calm feelings down.


The Regional Director stated at both these meetings that the pupils' demands could not be acceded to because that would set up a chain reaction, the end of which could not be foreseen. Other officials displayed the same attitude during this period before the outbreak of the riots. The danger of such an approach is that it may mean that grievances and requests are not considered on their merits.


The deputation from the UBC asked whether circulars from the Department could also be sent to the Council's Committee for Health and Education and whether the Committee could see him to discuss educational problems with him. The requests were refused on the grounds that the Department did not regard the Committee as a part of the education machinery.


The officials believed that agitators were behind all the rebelliousness and that the scholars were being used as a so-called pressure group. They did not realise that the scholars were so dissatisfied and inflamed that they could quite easily revolt.


This approach by the Department's officials had the following important consequences. In the first place, it closed the door on communication. There was no opportunity to explain the policy and the reasons for it. There was no exchange of ideas, and the impression was created that the Government was unapproachable and inexorable. Furthermore, they were never aware of what was going on among the unruly elements or how stubborn the resistance was. Nor were they able to establish what the objection was to the policy and the way in which it was presented. They were unable to warn the Secretary and the Minister of imminent danger and were unable, when enquiries were made, to furnish important details for replies in the House of Assembly. The problem, which was apparently of such great importance during the few weeks before the eruption, was resolved by the Minister within a matter of days after the outbreak of the riots. Finally, it is clear that their actions in no way helped to prevent or to delay the riots.

2.6 Impotence of the officials.


For the reasons set out in the preceding paragraphs, and because they were not in contact with the rebellious schoolchildren, their parents and their resistance, the officials did not see the threatening danger, never gave their own Department a timely warning of the danger, and did not take any steps themselves to avert an eruption.


Even without such contact, there were sufficient warning signs to have put them on their guard. Time and again there was trouble with school boards who disregarded the policy. From as early as February, pupils had been causing trouble in their schools about Afrikaans as a medium of instruction. There were boycotts of classes at a number of schools. At one stage, 1 600 scholars refused to go to school. On another occasion the figure was put at 2 000. Homeland leaders visited Soweto in connection with the problems in education. In and outside Parliament, questions were put to the Minister about exemptions and boycotts. The officials were asked for particulars, but they informed the Secretary that the troubles were still at a very low level; according to them, it was not yet necessary to call in the Secretary's help—and riots were already upon them. Early in May, the Chief Director of WRAB wrote to the Secretary that there were danger signs, and that his Board could not assume responsibility for damage that might result from the scholars' activities. And lastly, there were three important meetings. As far back as April, the African Teachers' Association of South Africa had had an interview with the Secretary on the question of the medium of instruction and had handed a memorandum to him on the matter. On 7 and 8 June the two meetings referred to above took place. Well-informed persons expressed their concern about the situation. The officials right next to the danger in Soweto failed to warn their Department.


2.7 Impotency of the police.


As has been remarked elsewhere in this Report, the Commission is mindful of the fact that it is easy and unfair to condemn with hindsight the actions, or the failure to act, of the officials and the police. It is in this light that the Commission will now deal, mainly on the basis of the findings in Chapters Bl and B3, with the SAP's inability to foresee the danger of riots.


The SAP said that, because school attendance was not compulsory, they could not take action merely because pupils stayed away from their classes. But there were after all several cases in which they did intervene, for example in cases of violence, public demonstrations, and stone-throwing. They instituted patrols for the protection of pupils who wanted to go to school. Some of their members were attacked on two successive days at the Naledi High School. The Force also had special sources of information, because some of its Black members lived in Soweto. It could be assumed that the Force in Soweto would have been aware of possible unrest in the area. Nevertheless, clear signs of brewing unrest during the last few weeks before the eruption were ignored. The threatening danger was discussed at meetings, and people who knew the situation expressed their genuine fears. There were several incidents of violent resistance that testified to mounting tension, and speakers and writers sounded warnings in public of coming riots, but the police did not realise the significance of all these portents.


It would seem that the police did not institute further or sufficient investigations. That is why it was possible for a group of young people to make intensive preparations for at least three days for a demonstration by 15 000 or more pupils at schools throughout Soweto. The police received their first, incomplete reports of two separate marches the evening before the demonstration was due to take place. At that stage, so far as manpower, equipment and mental attitude were concerned, the police were completely unprepared for such a mass demonstration. The Commission considers that the police themselves were largely to blame for their lack of knowledge of what was being planned and for their own unpreparedness.


Anyone who knew the circumstances would have realised that an unlawful procession of such magnitude would be an extreme threat to the preservation of peace and order and, if it had been his duty to do so, would have taken counter-measures. The police had no plan of action to counter the day's disturbances, and patrols first had to go out to find out what was going on. The divisional commissioner's order to confine the pupils to their own school grounds could not be carried out because most of the pupils had by then already left their school grounds. Nor were there enough men to carry out this order properly.


The police halted the march, but were unable to control the unruly crowd. Riots broke out and spread throughout Soweto. Before long, there was rioting in many parts of the country.


2.8 Finding.


The Commission's finding is that the riots of 16 June in Soweto were caused by a combination of the following circumstances: The application of the policy on the medium of instruction, which gave rise to misunderstanding and dissatisfaction among the people of Soweto; the scholars' planned and organised resistance to the policy on the medium of instruction; the ineffectual offical handling of the resistance; and the inability of Departmental officials and the police to foresee the imminent rioting and to take counter-measures.

Source: South Africa, Report of the Commission of Inquiry into the Riots at Soweto and Elsewhere from the 16th of June 1976 to the 28th of February 1977 (Pretoria: Government Printer, 1980), 1:560–569.