The First Commemoration of June 16-Baruch, H. (1979). Year of Fire, Year of Ash: The Soweto Revolt: Roots of A Revolution, Zed Press: London

On 3 June the UBC had collapsed and the students announced that they were planning to commemorate the dead during the week 13 to 19 June. During that period shebeens were to be closed. On the 16th and 17th all shops in the township were to be kept shut, and here would be a stay-at-home. Students at the black universities also announced plans for commemorating the events of 1976, and school student bodies in other parts of the country also made plans for demonstrations.

The commemorations in Soweto actually started in late May when scholars at individual schools celebrated events that had preceded the June 16 demonstration. On 25 May pupils of the Belle Higher Primary School held their own meeting, and as the days went by the celebrations were taken up by other schools. Some of the meetings took place without further incident; others were accompanied by stonings of official cars. Shots were fired by police, and youth were arrested, so that Soweto was in a high state of tension well before 13 June.

On 10 June Sechaba Montsitsi and 17 members of the SSRC were arrested and only two seem to have escaped the police net. One of them, Trofomo Sono, became the new President and the newly selected executive proceeded with plans for the commemoration.

Tension in the country was building up, and this was heightened when three young urban guerrillas made a machine gun attack on premises opposite John Vorster Square in Johannesburg and, on 15 June a portion of the railway line between Umlazi and Durban was blown up.

On Friday the 10th, students at Turfloop boycotted classes and continued the stay-away on the 13th. There was a complete boycott of schools on 13 June and the township was sealed off by road blocks set up by the students. That evening there was stone throwing in both Pretoria townships and in New Brighton, Port Elizabeth. The schools in Soweto were empty, and about 40 per cent of the work force responded to the stay-at-home appeal. The shebeens stayed closed throughout the week.

On 16 June an audience of some 6,000 gathered in the Regina Mundi Cathedral to commemorate the dead. But the meeting was not allowed to proceed peacefully. The police fired a salvo of tear gas canisters into the church and forced the audience out. In other sections of the township police also fired tear gas into any crowd that collected, and doused several houses to flush the occupants out.

The biggest action on the 16th was in the Eastern Cape, where the main storm centre was at Uitenhage near Port Elizabeth. Eleven students were arrested during demonstrations, and in the reaction to police provocation schools, liquor stores, shops and administration buildings were put to the flame. For two days the youth were out in the streets, defying the police and replying to the shootings with stones and rocks. Once again, the events of Soweto the year before were being repeated. Over two days 10 were reported dead, 32 wounded, and 280 arrested.

Some students drifted back to school on Monday 20 June, but on the 23rd nobody attended in Soweto. Pupils marched through the streets protesting against the educational system, and against the continued detentions of Montsitsi and other leaders. They intended marching to Johannesburg to join a group at John Vorster Square police station who were holding a vigil for those who had been arrested. Once again the students were stopped. Police barred the way to Johannesburg, and the crowd was dispersed with gas. In Johannesburg, 146 of those standing outside the police station were arrested after they had been assaulted by baton wielding policemen. In Soweto, youth stoned vehicles and came into conflict with the police. At least one was killed that day and many were wounded. It seemed as if the cycle of demonstrations and shootings was to continue without anyone being able to stand up and call for a new approach to the struggle. Just five days later the youth of Mamelodi and of Atteridgeville tried the same tactic, and met with the same response from the police. They too were dispersed by a barrage of tear gas canisters and guns.

SASM Politics in 1977

The SSRC venture into the political field had met with a success that was beyond the expectations of most people. A committee drawn from the schools of Soweto had brought down a government instituted body, the UBC, and appeared as the foremost political group in the community. Nonetheless, the mandate that the SSRC carried was to represent the interests of the students generally, and to press their demands for better facilities in the schools.

The SSRC had therefore to determine what they would do in the future, and decide whether they, as an organisation, could continue to act on general issues. Chris Wood, writing from Gaborone, gave this appraisal of the body:

Being a school students' movement Black education is still the dominant issue for it; as Mr. Sono said on July 1, 'If it is death, we must die, if that is how Bantu Education must be scrapped. I say this with conviction and all students have that conviction.' But being Black all issues concerning Blacks are of equal concern to it. Approximately 650 of their fellow students have been killed by police bullets, thousands more wounded or beaten by police batons. Thousands have been detained, imprisoned and tortured and yet they have not been intimidated or cowed into submission. They have the initiative and they mean to keep it.

Trofomo Sono had a few days previously made another statement which supplemented this 'do or die' declaration. On 27 June he reportedly said: 'We still maintain that our aims are not to overthrow the Government but to see Bantu Education driven to hell.'

In one important sense, Chris Wood was correct. The SSRC had taken the initiative over the issue of rents -- and they were not likely to surrender it. But it must be questioned whether they had the initiative in the broader strategy of the period. The government had moved its police around the country and had killed, maimed, arrested and detained at will. The ranks of the student movement had been sorely weakened, and to the numbers given by Wood, must be added the hundreds that had fled the country. The initiative that was in the hands of the students, was deceptive. Furthermore, to suggest that they would all die to get rid of the educational system, made good journalistic copy, but poor politics. The problem was to save lives and to protect personnel as far as was possible while conducting the struggle against the government. Mr. Sono eventually fled South Africa, and in so doing he was correct. To have offered his life as a sacrifice or even to risk arrest would at that stage have been pointless.

The more general statement, that the aim of the SSRC was not to overthrow the government but to destroy Bantu Education, raises problems that do not seem to have been thought out during the entire period of the Revolt. Assuming that the government could be forced into scrapping Bantu Education, and eventually providing universal compulsory education with 'equal' facilities for every boy and girl at school, without itself being toppled, little or nothing would have been altered in the country at large. How were African youth expected to achieve educational parity with white children if

they lived in Soweto (even the revamped Soweto they seemed to support)? And if they achieved this parity, how were they supposed to compete for jobs as long as apartheid continued? What, furthermore, was supposed to happen to the youth who would be educated in the Reserves? How could they ever emerge as equals from these glorified rural slums?

By refusing to confront the problems of a class society, the SSRC spokesmen ignored the problem that confronts educationalists in every class society: namely, that offering equal educational facilities to every child does not lead to equal scholastic attainment, nor does it offer equal opportunity, in either higher education or employment.

But perhaps Mr. Sono did not really mean what he said. As long as he was in public office, and working openly, he could not confess to the aim of overthrowing the government. The movement to which he adhered was to meet shortly in conference in Soweto and its viewpoints would be presented to the membership for endorsement. SASM had its annual general meeting in early July and adopted a set of general standpoints. These were listed as:

the rejection of all government created bodies;

religions should be made more indigenous and should promote the black


workers should participate fully in the liberation of the country;

wages should be determined by ability;

black professional people should seek to serve their community; and

foreign investment was condemned because it promoted apartheid.

This set of six points is all that appeared in the daily press, and the annual Survey of Race Relations adds no further details. On the basis of such scanty information it is not possible to examine, in any depth, the opinions held by student leaders in that crucial period before the police moved in to smash their organisation.

The points listed consist of a set of political (and social) principles, and only one of them led to immediate action or, to be more exact, to the continuation of action already initiated. That is, the rejection of all government instituted bodies. This kept alive the struggle against Buthelezi and men of his ilk, and also served notice that the students would continue their campaign to force official (black) bodies to resign. The rejection of foreign investment was in line with the stand taken by all anti-government bodies and added nothing new. On the other hand, the adoption of a standpoint on religion, deeply entrenched in the attitudes of members of SASO/BPC and BCP, was new to the school pupils' organisation. The attitude to the role of the workers was, if anything, far more diffuse than the viewpoint expressed in September 1976 when students had stated that, in any liberation struggle, 'the power for change lies with the workers'. In July 1977, the workers seem only to have been called upon to 'participate fully in the liberation', and the centrality of their role in overthrowing the apartheid state was no longer underlined. 'Even the point on professional people was vague. They were rebuked, as indeed they needed to be, for not always seeking to serve their community. What had to be faced clearly - the role of intellectuals in the struggle - was thereby fudged, and the class issues

which were posed so sharply when the Revolt was at its height, seem to have been blunted in this closing stage of the struggle.

At the beginning of July the SSRC had issued an ultimatum to members of the 26 school boards in Soweto, demanding their immediate resignation. After a short delay a number of boards resigned en bloc, and by the end of the month 10 boards had ceased to function. The others followed in August. The student leaders in Alexandra, Atteridgeville and Mamelodi seemed to have made the same demands following the conference and to have secured the required resignations.

There was no news of similar action elsewhere in the country, although that could have been the result of poor reporting facilities. In August, it was announced that 17 members of the Port Elizabeth SASM had been arrested.

The Police Move In

Through August and September the policy of repression was pursued by the police. Schools were raided, students were arrested; and, as a result, boycotts deepened in Soweto, Guguletu, Atteridgevme, East London, Healdtown etc Even Jabulani, once condemned as "unreliable", Faced police fire and added to the toll of dead

On 24 August the Government announced that the 40 post-primary schools in Soweto would cease to be regarded as Community Schools. They would be reopened as Government High Schools, and all students would be required to register by 5 September. The students reacted by calling on the teachers to resign, and within a short time some 475 had responded positively. They claimed, after resigning, that the government takeover was arrogant and unacceptable and that continued service under Bantu Education brought them into general disrepute.

Both students and teachers were now out, and the boycott spread to Kwa Thema (Springs), to Alexandra, and to primary schools in Atteridgeville. Then on 17 September the news of the murder of Steve Biko burst on the country. In a wave of revulsion the schools emptied throughout the land.

The focus moved first to Vendaland and BophutaTswana, and then to Port Elizabeth, Uitenhage, Kingwilliamstown, and in October there were riots in towns throughout the Eastern Cape, and in towns small and large in every province. In every case the police used guns and gas, batons and dogs, to disperse the crowds. Hundreds of youth were thrown into prison cells and summary trials speeded up in order to get sentences passed.

By the end of the month it was reported that:

In Soweto there would be no matriculation examinations for the second year running.

In Venda all 357 schools were closed and over 100,000 youth sent home. In Port Elizabeth all 39,000 youth were out of school. In Kingwilliamstown, Cradock and Grahamstown the schools were almost all empty. In Pietersburg five secondary schools were shut. The schools of Atteridgeville were all closed. In Soweto the boycott covered the higher primary and all secondary schools. One-third of Turfloop's students had walked out over student rights. Other areas were affected in varying degrees, and only in the Transkei and KwaZulu were the schools functioning normally.27

In August Sono, last declared president of the SSRC, fled to Botswana after some 20 SSRC members has been arrested. Thereafter the SSRC announced that it would be led by a secret committee of six. It continued to direct student activities, but could no longer rely on the publicity it had used so effectively since 16 June, and its work was considerably hampered. Eventually the government moved on 19 October to outlaw 17 African organisations (most of which could be described as bodies belonging to the Black Consciousness Movement) and the Christian Institute. The World, the Weekend World and Pro Veritate were also banned as were several individuals. At least 42 people were detained. All the funds and property belonging to these organisations were confiscated, and this included a mobile clinic, a clothing factory and a boutique (all owned by the BCP and associated organisations). The total assets taken over by the state amounted to approximately one million Rand.

The government intention was to end the Revolt, and in this it succeeded. The initial response in the schools was to intensify the struggle, but that was the last spasm of a struggle that had been ground down by brute force, and by an inability to find new techniques of struggle. The students had 'rehearsed' too often without being able to move beyond demonstration. In the New Year (1978) the return to school was not smooth, and it took several months before classes filled up. There was still sporadic unrest and students were quick to challenge teachers who tried to impose tight discipline in the classroom. Nevertheless the Soweto Students' League, which replaced the SSRC, altered course early in the 1978 school year. At first they urged a complete boycott of the state schools. But they reversed this stand and called for a return to classes, and this time the students tended to agree with them. The classrooms began to fill.

On 22 March the youth mourned the death of Robert Sobukwe (original founder of the PAC), and those that attended his funeral forced Gatsha Buthelezi to leave, but not before his bodyguard had fired into the air. Despite the undoubted appeal Sobukwe's name and martyrdom evoked, this did not unleash the reaction that had been so marked in September when Biko was buried.

The Revolt was not over. It could not be over as long as apartheid reigned. But the phase that had opened up on June 16 1976 was closed.

• Baruch, H. (1979). Year of Fire, Year of Ash: The Soweto Revolt: Roots of A Revolution, Zed Press: London

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