“I Saw a Nightmare…”
Doing Violence to Memory: The Soweto Uprising, June 16, 1976
by Helena Pohlandt-McCormick
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Chapter 4

The Participants

Zakes Molotsi

(See also: Full Interview)

1 Zakes Molotsi was 22 years old and a factory worker in 1976. A former Umkhonto We Sizwe fighter, he had spent eight years on Robben Island after the security police captured him in the 1980s.

All quotes are from a tape-recorded interview of Zakes Molotsi by Helena Pohlandt-McCormick in Johannesburg in May 1995.

For Zakes, a broader background of political awareness and a history of knowing provided the guiding context for political responsibility and action.

Myself I was born in a place called Eastern Native township [unclear]. It was an area divided by the railway and the Main Reef Road between the whites and the blacks and during the time when we go there, we were considered different, we played together with whites after school. So after school, we have the mine dumps, we used to go there we used to play soccer, we all used to play there. But once you reach a certain age, let's say 15, 16, then you start seeing, you know, attitudes nè, then we started to realize that no, we were no longer friends, so the world apart now, now once your reach that age, the divided world, South Africa in two worlds.

Zakes Molotsi almost immediately placed his childhood and the beginning of his story in the broad context of a divided country, trying to fix, in terms of age, when the private became political, when the individual memory merged with or contradicted the received collective memory, challenging or questioning received history. This account indicated that there might have been a brief period, coinciding with childhood, in which the boundaries did not matter but that it was circumscribed, that in fact, beyond this time, there was no place that was simply private, simply individual, that was not affected or shaped by the political realities of the country.

He was one of those children of Soweto who was, by force of economic and family circumstances, driven out of school early:

But I schooled there [in Soweto], until 1970 when I left school. Well, my mother died a long time ago, 1959, we were left with our father and ]my grandparents. Because of economic difficulties I couldn't pursue my studies. So I was forced to work at a very early age.

He was more experienced, or otherwise involved in political activity, and had quite a good sense of what was going to happen on June 16:

We, the people who were working, we knew about the demonstration that is on that day. But we all left for work… [B]ut on the day, around 11, 12, there were already news which was spreading throughout the factories. That Soweto is burning. So everybody started to leave the working place, so that we reach home very early. Because of the situation which has started.

So, on the trains and all this …it was just a tension, because everybody doesn't know whether his kids or her kids are still living. So this was the whole situation… I took the train back home, went back home. But when we came through, after [New] Canada to Mzimhlope, the trains were not going in, so we have to come from Mzimhlope through the Soweto township, we started to realize now that it's incendiary.

Zakes Molotsi said that the dearth of places or people that the children could have turned to with their concerns contributed significantly to the mounting tensions in the townships:

[T]here were no structures which were created to allow whatever somebody is having some difficulties to be in a position to channel the complaints within the proper channels.

Though not everyone knew what it was all about, others, like Zakes Molotsi, had long been part of what had remained of the banned African National Congress, organizing underground. He understood the things that foreshadowed these events:

I was working all along till the period of 1976. But if you look at South Africa then, there were some signs if you remember, tensions from the workplace, if you remember in 1973—strikes around Jo'burg. These were sparks, which, if you remember very well, even the 76, from January it was …the situation was not normal. You can see, you know, the tension was mounting, and if you look at the crisis within the education system, there were a lot of frustrations.

But from January till May June, because by that time myself, I was already involved politically, I was …[phone]. So it was a question of operating under ground, we were having cells for, for, for … I was working with one of the few trade unionists then, by the name of Laurence Nzame, he died in detention in 1977. He was trade unionist. This is the old man who would teach us about the ANC, about the struggle, to understand correctly… The ANC, was ours. You know, I grew up within the ANC.

He knew that 1976 "was a year that was a very dark year, you could see that …a sense that there was something wrong." While he was perhaps not caught off guard quite so badly as others, he hardly anticipated what "the spark of Wednesday, June 16" would unleash:

But the event started very early, and then when it started to go for the life of Hector Pieterson, and the others… So then from there it was just a traincrash, an emotional run, there was no planning on the retaliation. But the march was organized. But the events after, it was now starting to be a spontaneous anger in response to the killing of Hector and other people who were killed. Because if you remember very well, from that day only, it was a very big number of people killed.

No it was, as you have heard, this is the end of the world, because everything was just burning, it was smoke throughout Soweto, trains were not working, roads were closed, it was terrible, lot of police.

Change came quickly, as did experience, and students quickly became seasoned in dealing with the ever-present threat of the police as new demonstrations and marches followed and violence flared time and again:

[A]nd if you will remember very well, immediately after those , followed the march in town, remember the march in town, which was organized by the students immediately after the march of that Wednesday …no not the next day …the big march in September. It was terrible […]

One hundred fifty-eight children were arrested.

Ja, the police were all over, but the kids managed to penetrate, pierce right in town. It was so exciting …[laughs]. I was here in Jo'burg too. Because that time, we were now really involved. We don't care about work any longer.

Zakes Molotsi started to "operate here inside the country from '81, '82, '83," after training and a stint as chief of logistics in Tanzania and Angola. In 1980 he left for training in the Soviet Union and returned to "the Mozambican front in 1981." Between 1981 and the time of his arrest in 1984, he moved in and out of the country frequently as his assignments demanded. His story is now tinged with humor, but only by the relative distance of time and by the vindication that political changes wrought. He was captured at Piet Retief, a town in the eastern Transvaal, close to the Mozambican border. Already during late 1982—"it was during the festive season"—he and several others had gone to Swaziland to get some material and had fallen into a police trap, a roadblock. They had only barely talked their way out of the police station they had been taken to and quickly crossed the border back into Botswana. It was not long before his unit returned—via Botswana, Zambia, Zambia, and Mozambique—back into South Africa:

Now when we are coming [back in] '83, that's where all this started. There was a shootout with us, and then they arrested my co-accused first, and then the two of us, and then I give this other one his directions to go to Swaziland. I'll remain, because I knew the place. So, and this one who was arrested, he was not a threat. He doesn't know where we were, he doesn't know any weapons …he doesn't know anything. It was first time he entered the country. So I didn't have any problem. So …[there were] helicopters, dogs and all this stuff… I remained there where I was by the water… [unclear] Tthere was just a little island, just go and sit alone then I planned a contact with them at twelve midnight …going back to Swaziland. But, you know, it was misty, very misty, you couldn't even see, and it was dark… And so I decided okay, let me sleep, and in the morning I will take the …my way out. That was my biggest mistake. [Both of us laugh.]

In the morning the mist cleared and they could see you too.

[more laughter] …and the mist cleared, and then there were the soldiers. Now, they were asking me questions. "No, I'm …[unclear], I bring this money, I was sent by my father to come and fetch this money, so he must buy building material for the old granny at home." And they believed it, did buy that story. Immediately when I turned my back, facing …somebody came from behind …just called my name: "Zakes." I know that was the end of it.

They knew who you were?

Ja, they had been long looking for me.

This testimony reflected not only the relative ease (not discounting the risk or hardship) with which young people moved in and out of the country in anticipation of military training or other education but also the dedication to the internal struggle that many held fast to and that Molotsi identified as characteristic of their cohort:

[I]t was a generation that said no, it was a defiant group, very defiant. The older generation was saying there is nothing you can do, you can't change it, you just keep on praying. This generation it said no, enough is enough.

"There is no question about the prominence of Soweto" in the uprising, nor that the uprising began with a student march there:

So now, it's where all these things started, thus far if you look at the generation which left during '76, basically, most of us were from […] in Soweto. Other areas started to come later, but '76 most of us were from the Soweto area. Because we were the people who were directly affected.

Each person brought different skills to the uprising:

So that time, everybody now, we start to organize. As I have mentioned, the group I belonged to. We started to teach people how to make petrol bombs and all these things, when the gas, the teargas, how to counter it.

Political Affiliation

Zakes Molotsi's was a decidedly ANC point of view:

The ANC, was ours. You know, I grew up within the ANC. A differently father organization, it gives you …not to hate, the politics of hatred, our politics was not based on the question of race, or to hate a certain racial group. No. It was based on the apartheid system, to understand correctly what is apartheid. And in the end what will result in this system itself to be checked, for future generations and all this… So that one could be brought in a position to look at it in a broader way, not narrow.
So this, and the question of recruitment. To teach how to recruit for the ANC. So it was, that time it was still a build-up to 1976. By then already, we have penetrated, even the student organizations. Because if you remember, there was SASO, there was SASM, which was through ANC, […] we have our people within the student organizations, so that [telephone] …
We were still at the point where I was telling you about the cells, how they functioned, the aims and objectives… The recruitment, if you remember, started before the uprising. By the time the uprising came into being, already most of some of the youth, had left the country … to Botswana, they started there.
By February-March there was already a movement already. [Emphasis added.]

But many students found themselves very much on their own in 1976, with little to hope for from the exiled liberation movements or from the senior movements like SASO and the BPC (Black Peoples Convention), whose leadership had already been weakened in the years immediately prior to 1976, and whose remaining leaders, including Kenneth Rachidi, Tom Manthata, and Aubrey Mokoena, were very quickly detained by the authorities. 1


On the presence of the ANC within South Africa and its relationship to other political organizations:

No, there was none—that time, it was a close[d] society. There was no ANC, there was no PAC. The organization, these organizations, they existed underground, but above the ground level, they were really not there, because it was difficult to talk about these organizations. You could not even refer to them by names in '76. So that is why it was a question of—everybody was just associating with any other [unclear] as long as we all agree. That's why even now, it's …so important even now that people should accept, my belief, that we should accept, yes, you are right to believe in whatever way you want to. As long as we don't take those differences physically. Inside here they existed, but it was not about that. So it was not easy to trace that this particular person belongs to the ANC, this one belongs to the PAC, this one belongs to AZAPO. It was very difficult to do that.
…there was no tension, on the ground.


Note 1: See also Thomas G. Karis and Gail M. Gerhart, eds., Nadir and Resurgence, 1964-1979, vol. 5 of From Protest to Challenge: A Documentary History of African Politics in South Africa, 1882-1990, ed. Thomas Karis and Gwendolyn M. Carter (Stanford, Calif.: Hoover Institution Press; vol. 5, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1972), 170. back