“I Saw a Nightmare…”
Doing Violence to Memory: The Soweto Uprising, June 16, 1976
by Helena Pohlandt-McCormick
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Colin W. Eglin, statement, House of Assembly debates

Hansard vol. 20 (17 June 1976), 9631

(Disturbances in Soweto)

1 Mr. C.W. EGLIN: Mr. Speaker, I am sure the hon. Members of this House and the wider South African public are filled with a deep sense of shock at the events which started yesterday. They are filled with shock, although perhaps not with surprise, except for those who deluded themselves into believing tha trace relations in South Africa have never been better. When one looks at the events, it appears that a disturbance of a major magnitude has taken place, a disturbance which commenced as a scholars' demonstration, and developed from there into a riot against authority by people blind with hatred and resentment against the symbols, against the institutions and against the persons associated with that authority. Last night it degenerated into looting, thuggery, violence and murder.

We in these benches express our sympathy with those innocent people who have suffered at the hands of others and to those who today mourn and are bereaved. Yesterday's events proved one thing: That rioting mobs driven by hatred and resentment have no respect for persons or for individuals. We express our sympathy. We deplore violence of all kinds, because we believe that it is only in peace, and only within an orderly society, that we shall be able to solve the problems of our country. We believe it is the duty of the authorities to act against those who commit acts of violence, of thuggery and of murder.

Right at this present time, we believe it is the priority of the Government to restore law and order, to deal with violence and to contain the threats that there are to peace in South Africa. However, if that is the responsibility of the executive, I believe it is our responsibility as legislators, in this sovereign Parliament, to give serious consideration to the root causes of the potential violence and conflict in our country. I hope that the hon. the Minister of Justice, who made a statement on the events of this morning, will be able to elaborate and give us more information. In addition, I hope he will be able to outline the steps that are being taken to ensure the safety of the people in a situation which is very tense.

We trust that there is going to be a critical inquiry into the events of yesterday and today, an inquiry on the handling of the situation, and inquiry to sift out the conflicting eye-witness accounts of which we have already read, an inquiry to review the decisions taken, the methods used and the procedures adopted in order to ensure that, where it is necessary to act to maintain order, that is done with a maximum of efficiency and with a minimum use of force. Hope that in the inquiries which will take place, we shall not merely look for scapegoats and the Government will not indulge in the superficial exercise of blaming everything on so-called activists. We believe that the implications of what took place in Soweto yesterday are far too serious for all of us for either a one-sided or a superficial analysis.


I hope that, arising out of those events, there will be two things that should be common cause amongst us as serious South Africans. That is, firstly, that a city like Soweto could not, within the space of a few hours, be turned into a cauldron of violence and hatred unless there was something fundamentally wrong with the society and unless there was something wrong in the relationships between the Black society and the authorities. I hope there is common cause that there was a chain of events, related to the enforced medium of instruction in the schools of Soweto, which led up to a situation of the open conflict which erupted in Soweto yesterday. The hon. the Minister of Justice referred to the fact that it all started with a protest movement by pupils of certain schools. There is undoubted evidence of arrogance, of indifference, of rank incompetence in the field of Bantu Administration and Development and in the field of education, for which, we believe, the Minister of Bantu Education in particular, must accept responsibility. We believe that it was a chain of these factors, a combination of these factors, which led to the chain of events culminating in yesterday's bloody chaos in Soweto.

Ever since early 1975 there have been reasons why, in its opinion, the department has been enforcing the system of English and Afrikaans on a 50:50 basis and extending it with the introduction of the 12-year structure. What is important, is that in enforcing this, the hon. the Minister and the hon. the Deputy Minister have decided to do it in defiance of the wishes of homeland leaders themselves. They have decided to do it in defiance of the wishes of the teachers, school committees, parents and scholars. They have done it deliberately, despite the warnings that were repeatedly given, warnings that the enforcement had created a deep resentment and that it could result in an explosive situation. The hon. the Deputy Minister may have his reasons, but these are the facts.

Ever since the early stages of 1975, the African Teachers' Association said that "it was cruel and shortsighted". In January 1975 the Joint School Board and committees of the Southern and Northern Transvaal regions met the officials of the department in order to protest against it. Early last year, when the hon. the Prime Minister met with the homeland leaders, they requested that instruction in the urban areas should conform with the language medium of instruction in the homeland areas. In May last year the hon. the Minister of Bantu Education and Development said "we cannot accede to this request. We cannot approve of this, if this should be the wish of some of the homelands." Then, to our great dismay, the hon. former Deputy Minister of Bantu Education was asked by the hon. member for Bryanston whether he had consulted with the people and he replied "I have not consulted with them and I am not going to consult them." That situation remained until the shock at the beginning of this year which went right through the African teaching profession. Whether we like it or not, there were signs and warnings as to what would happen. One only has to read Die Burger of today to realize that there were early warnings and signs of trouble as to the result of the decision which was taken by the department.

Questions were asked in this House, and since the hon. the Deputy Minister came into this portfolio, he adopted an almost cavalier attitude towards this matter, as did the hon. member himself. The questions put were in regard to the number of schools that were required, which had been refused and which not. The hon. the Deputy Minister replied that these statistics were not kept and added "I do not deem the requested information of such importance to instruct my department to undertake this time-consuming task to obtain the required information." We had the Tswana Meadowlands School Board resigning on this issue, with Chief Mangope intervening help. The hon. member for Pinelands pleaded in this House for a change in the procedure. The scholars went on strike in the schools. The hon. member for Parktown went to the hon. the Deputy Minister from time to time — between 27 May and 10 June — on behalf of people who were concerned about the situation and every time the hon. the Deputy Minister told them that there was nothing to worry about. After making inquiries, he indicated that he did not think that there would be an escalation in the dispute. He said the following in a note to the hon. member for Parktown—

Die probleme in verband met die staking van die leerlinge in Soweto word tans nog op 'n laer vlak gehanteer en blykbaar het onderhandelings nog nie die finale dooiepunt bereik nie. Did is ook not nie na die Sekretaris van die Departement verwys vir uitsluitsel nie. Later miskien wel.

The whole tenor up to 10 June was that there was nothing to worry about because the situation was still being handled.

However, there was a riot. The Police went there on the night of 9 June and Station Commander Major Viljoen said that a police car was burnt there, but that there was a misunderstanding as to why it was set alight. Two days later the hon. member for Rosettenville put a question to the hon. the Deputy Minister in order to obtain information about this incident at a school where scholars had burnt a police car. The hon. the Deputy Minister replied that he had no knowledge whatsoever of the incident. Two days after striking scholars had burnt a police car, the hon. the Deputy Minister told this House that he had no knowledge of this incident at all. Throughout the situation, we have had, I would say, a dereliction of duty in the sense that he did not at any time sense the urgency of the situation. There was an insensitivity towards the feeling of the people and no appreciation of the very stern warning which was coming out of Soweto. Mr. Alpheus Kumalo of the Zulu School Board warned on 28 May that the strike could spread like wildfire, with a possibility of violent confrontation between boycotting pupils and the authorities. Three days ago Mr. Leonard Mosala of the Soweto Urban Bantu Council warned that unless the matter was dealt with immediately, it would precipitate another Sharpeville shooting incident. These were the warnings directed to the hon. the Deputy Minister and the hon. the Minister and yet, time and time again, they shrugged them off.

Then there is every indication of rank incompetence and inefficiency within the department itself. The Bantu Administration Department, and even the West Rand Bantu Board, seem to be completely out of touch with the realities of the situation in Soweto. There was no proper liaison between BAD, the Bantu Administration Department, and the Bantu Education Department. The Bantu Administration Department was not informed of the situation or issues by the Department of Bantu Education. There was a totally inadequate upward transmission of information within the Bantu Education Department itself. There is every indication that the Regional Director of Bantu Education, Mr. Ackermann, was completely insensitive and completely inflexible. There was a lack of effective communication between the White officials and the Blacks who are affected by the education. The Urban Bantu Council itself seemed to be no instrument for reflecting the mood of the people, and there was no liaison between the Urban Bantu Council, the BAD and the BED. It is only now that that the hon. the Deputy Minister says he is going to consult with the Soweto urban council on this matter. It is too late. That council and the hon. the Minister should have been dealing with the issue a long time ago.

Added to this, added to this inefficiency, added to the misjudgment of the situation, it appears that we have a Minister and Deputy Minister of Bantu Education who are so enthralled with their own ideology, so insensitive to the feelings of the Blacks, so hopelessly out of touch with the mood of the people in a place like Soweto, that they have simply allowed the matter to slide. They have simply allowed a situation to develop before their very eyes. Added to this, I read in Die Burger this morning a statement which for its insensitivity and arrogance would do credit to Lord Milner of 70 yrs ago —

In die Blankegebied van Suid-Afrika, waar die Regering betaal, is dit sekerlik ons reg om die taalbedeling te bepaal.

And then, with unbelievable cynicism —

Hoekom word leerlinge na skole gestuur as die taalbedeling hulle nie aanstaan nie? There are no other schools. By law there cannot be any other schools. And yet this new Lord Milner says that unless the Blacks accept the language we want them to because we are paying for it, why do the send their children to these schools? [Interjections.]


The events of the last 36 hours in Soweto and elsewhere were, I believe, a tragedy, whether they are measured in human, economic or political terms. The question is: Where do we go from here? It affects all of us. I do not believe that we can afford to sit back and wait for another explosion. I believe that an especially heavy responsibility rests on the shoulders of the hon. the Prime Minister. After all, it was the hon. the Prime Minister who raised the level of Black expectations when he authorized ambassador Pik Botha to commit the South African Government to do all in its power to move away from discrimination. He raised the level of Black expectations. Whatever else he does and wherever else he goes in the world, I believe his first responsibility, for the sake of all of us, is to see that the South Africans fulfill that commitment to get rid of race discrimination. I want to remind the hon. the Prime Minister that in this highly emotional, politically explosive area, symbolism is also important. And for this reason I believe that the appointment of the present Deputy Minister of Bantu Education was a deep disappointment to millions of Black South Africans who were looking for a change away from discrimination. It was a serious setback for race relations in our country. [Interjections.]

I believe that in all these circumstances the hon. the Prime Minister should do three things. In the first place he should remove the Minister and the Deputy Minister of Bantu Education from this portfolio. Secondly, he should order an immediate inquiry into the functioning of the Bantu education system and, pending that inquiry, he should suspend the instructions relating to the language medium applicable to the schools. Furthermore, he should suspend Mr. Ackerman, the Regional Director of Bantu Education, until the inquiry has been completed. Finally, I believe that the hon. the Prime Minister, in the light of the anguish of Soweto and what has happened, should, as a matter of urgency, appoint at top level a multiracial commission, similar to the Theron Commission appointed for the Coloured people, to consider the social, economic and political reforms that are going to be essential if we are going to avoid conflict, if we are going to live in peace, not in the homelands, not in the rural areas but in the urban areas of South Africa where Blacks and Whites are living together today. For as long as we can see into the future, these people will have to live and work together.

If the hon. the Prime Minister would do these things, if the hon. the Minister of Justice would contain the situation, then I believe that out of the horror, out of the anguish and out of the turmoil of Soweto of the last few days, something worthwhile could emerge for South Africa.