Response to the June 16 Soweto Youth Uprising by organisations in exile

Students with their hands raised, indicating passive resistance Image source

June 16 marks the commemoration of National Youth Day in South Africa. This is the day the country reflects on the massacre of school children during the Soweto Uprising of 1976. The response of the organisations in exile can be understood in the context of the events that took place on the day. The students had organised a peaceful march against the Afrikaans Medium Decree, issued in 1974, which made it mandatory for Black schools to use the Afrikaans language as the medium of instruction in Mathematics, Social Sciences and Geography at the secondary school level. Punt Janson, the Deputy Minister of then Bantu Education, was quoted as saying: “I have not consulted the African people on the language issue and I’m not going to. An African might find that ‘the big boss’ spoke only Afrikaans or spoke only English. It would be to his advantage to know both languages.”

The policy was deeply unpopular since Afrikaans was regarded by some as the language of the oppressor. It was against this background that on 30 April 1976, students from the Orlando West Junior School in Soweto went on strike and boycotted classes. By 16 June, their rebellion spread to other schools in Soweto. Incidentally, the student-organised mass rally on this date turned violent, as the police responded with bullets to stones thrown by the angry students. Many students were shot. The official death toll was 23, but it could have been higher than 200 because the incident triggered widespread violence throughout South Africa, which claimed more lives. The first student to be shot on that fateful day was 15-year old Hastings Ndlovu. However, the killing in the same incident of Hector Pieterson, aged 12, and in particular the publication of his photograph taken by Sam Nzima, made him an international icon of the uprising. It became the major rallying point of the struggle against apartheid.

Military Response: Camps in exile

The incident triggered widespread violence not only in Soweto but also throughout South Africa. For the political organisations in exile, notably, the African National Congress(ANC) and Pan Africanist Congress(PAC), the Soweto unrest in June 1976 provided a golden opportunity both for recruitment and military training of young men and women. Many Black people felt in danger of being arrested by the police and further underground activities were launched as a result of this threat. Discreet recruitment operations culminated in many incensed students taking up arms against the government, and being sent for military training. Hence the mushrooming of military camps such as Mkhumbane in Temeke (Tanzania) outside the country, under the command and mentorship of Ntate Mashego and the Engineering camp in Angola. Recruits were advised on how to unlawfully cross the border(s) into Botswana, Swaziland, Angola, Mozambique and Tanzania, where they received military training. It is essential to note that the accession to power of the Mozambique Liberation Front (Frelimo) in Mozambique and the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) in Angola in 1975, together with the exodus of thousands of young people in the months following the Soweto uprising, created favourable conditions for the resumption of sabotage activity in South Africa, especially after the collapse of the ANC/Zimbabwe African Peoples Union (ZAPU) joint operation (i.e.the Wankie Campaign). These developments were followed by the infiltration of trained fighters back into South Africa, bombings of white installations and the subsequent arrest and trials of anti-apartheid activists.

Clearly, an issue that gave rise to a vast number of trials under security legislation was the massive recruitment of people and their transportation out of South Africa. While there is certainly some indication that this was already on the increase prior to June 1976, the revolts of 1976 gave an enormous boost to the activity of organisations recruiting members for military training. This is especially so in the case of the ANC, but there is also some evidence that PAC activity had been revitalised to some extent. As a result, there were many South Africans in ANC and PAC training camps. The period also witnessed a large number of trials against recruitment for military training. Those who were brought to trial for this offence seemed to reach a peak in 1977 and the first part of 1978. Many trained guerrilla fighters returned to South Africa, often wielding a large quantity of arms, explosives and ammunition. This group included the Black school children who fled or were recruited in the wake of the June 1976 rebellion. Their activities gave rise to a number of trials as exemplified by the case of Petrus Bushy Molefe, aged 22, who underwent training in East Germany, and was charged for sabotage and terrorism under the Sabotage and Terrorism Acts of June 1962 and June 1967 respectively. Related to this was the large quantity of arms and ammunition found by police in their attempts to uncover guerrillas in the urban areas and in clashes in the rural areas. It is important to note that most of the arms caches that were uncovered comprised weapons originating from the then Soviet Union, and the Eastern bloc countries, which suggests that the West was not prepared to lend similar support to the Southern African liberation movements.

On 30 November 1976 a group of armed guerrillas clashed with the South African Police near Bordergate, on the Swaziland/South African border. A hand grenade was detonated by one of the guerrillas, injuring two policemen, and allowing the insurgents to escape. Shortly before this incident a railway line near Dikgale, in the Pietersburg district, was damaged in a successful sabotage attempt. From December 1976, in a series of raids covering Johannesburg, Soweto, Alexandra, Rustenburg, Odi, Nebo, Pietersburg and Sekhukhuniland, security police detained a number of ANC activists. Towards the middle of 1977 twelve accused activists, who included Mosima Gabriel “Tokyo” Sexwale, were charged under the Terrorism Act in the famous trial of the “Pretoria 12”. They were mainly accused of being members or active supporters of certain unlawful organisations in South Africa, Swaziland, Mozambique, Russia and China such as the ANC, the South African Communist Party(SACP) and Umkhonto we Sizwe(MK). They were also alternately charged with endangering, in various ways, the maintenance of law and order in South Africa; undergoing military and other training; possession of explosives, ammunition, firearms and weapons; harbouring and rendering assistance to guerrillas; as well as taking part in the activities of a banned organisation. On the whole, they were accused of conspiring to overthrow the white government and were all convicted on the main count of sedition.

Thus, the response of the political organisations operating in exile was one that was premised on mobilisation, recruitment of people and the organisation of the armed phase of the struggle from outside in order to topple the apartheid government. Clearly, the events of the Soweto revolt and the response from the liberation movement in exile are not isolated developments. They have their roots in the spirit of resistance to the growing crisis of apartheid. The collective resistance to oppression and exploitation in South Africa also fundamentally underpins the relationship that was forged between internal and external forms of organisation after this incident. It led to major transformations in the strategies of the various exiled liberation movements more in accordance with the changing conditions in the country. A militant approach, that found expression in the recruitment and subsequent training of the cadres in neighbouring as well as some European and Asian countries, was emphasised.


References:
• ANC Official Site. Statement on the “Sabotage Act,” June 1962. https://www.anc.org.za/ancdocs/history/lutuli/sabotage_act.htm
• Lodge Tom, Black politics in South Africa since 1945, Johannesburg: Ravan Press, 1983.
• Lucille Davie, “The day Hector Pieterson died,” South Africa Information Online. Feature: Hector Pieterson. https://www.southafrica.info/ess_info/sa_glance/history/hector-pieterson..., 15 June 2006.
• Mafeje Archie, “Soweto and its aftermath,” Review of African Political Economy, 5(11), January 1978, 17-30. Information World Website. https://www.informaworld.com/smpp /content~content=a769339220~db=all
• Moss Glenn, Political Trials – South Africa: 1976-1979, Development Studies Group Information Publication 2, Johannesburg, s.a.
• Ngculu Lincoln (Makhaya James), “The honour to serve: memories of the June 16 MK Detachment,” ANC Official Site.https://www.anc.org.za/ancdocs/pubs/umrabulo/umrabulo13e.html
• SADET, The Road to Democracy in South Africa, Vol. 2 [1970-1980], Pretoria: UNISA Press, 2006.
• Senzangankhona Makhanda et al, “Umkhonto Remembered – Part Two Umkhonto we Sizwe: Within Living Memory – The Luthuli Detachment: Zipra and Umkhonto Alliance, ANC Official Site. https://www.anc.org.za/ancdocs/pubs/umrabulo/umrabulo14/umkhonto.html

Last updated : 14-Jun-2019

This article was produced by South African History Online on 06-Jun-2011

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