Veteran journalist Willie Bokala reflects on his relations with the leaders of the June 16, 1976 revolt and its lessons for today’s generation
WHEN Bantu education minister MC Botha made the proclamation in 1975 that Afrikaans would be used as a medium of instruction, his decree triggered a turning point in the history of our country and sparked the June 16, 1976 student uprising. Veteran journalist Tsholofelo William Bokala reported on the events of the June 16 uprising and shares his reflections of that historic turning point.
Bokala was working as a journalist for The World newspaper and recalls meeting with the secondary school students who would go on to lead the historic June 16, 1976 Soweto students uprising.
“It was the junior secondary schools which set off the boycott of schools, with Orlando West Junior Secondary School the first to start around the beginning of 1976. The school was situated in Orlando West near Orlando High School where pupils attended school as usual but would refuse to be taught in Afrikaans.”
Bokala, then aged 22, regularly interacted with the pupils of Orlando West Junior Secondary and as a journalist reported on the pupils reasons for refusing to be taught in Afrikaans.
“As soon as I arrive at the school, the leader of the protest, Seth Mazibuko would come running and relate to me the latest information about their boycott against Afrikaans.”
Seth Mazibuko would simply say, Bokala recalls, that: “We will be out of classes until the government removes the language of Afrikaans, the other thing that we wish should happen is for the minister of Bantu Education to come here so that we can talk to him ourselves or if the minister cannot come to us they should send Mr Strydom (who was director of Bantu Education in the Transvaal at that time).”
Two months down the line Diepkloof Junior Secondary also joined the boycott, soon after Esiyalwini Junior Secondary School joined and then other secondary schools around the township followed suit.
Bokala recalls that during the build up to the mass protest march of June 16, he had different sources who entrusted him with information on the plans of the protesting pupils, many of them leaders of the uprising.
“Tebello Motapanyane was a student at Orlando High School and a leader of the South African Students Movement (SASM). It was students like him who lobbied the rest of the high schools to join in the protest, so much so that meetings began to take place and we as journalists were tipped off about other meetings that took place in other high schools such as Morris Isaacson High School and Naledi High School. On June 8, 1976 police tried to arrest a student leader in Naledi High School but failed because their car was burned.”
The Urban Bantu Council was approached by journalists for its views about the ongoing protests in Soweto schools.
“I remember one council meeting where a councillor named Mosala predicted that if the government did nothing to address the school boycotts, that the country was going to burn.”
His regular interaction with the protesting pupils and his close relations with the leaders of the uprising provided Bokala with a treasure trove of information and insights. This enabled him to write a lead story for The World newspaper on Wednesday 16 June 1976 which was the day of the mass protest march.
Bokala was up early on June 16 and well prepared to record the historic event together with his colleague, the photographer Moffat Zungu.
“We ended up at Naledi High School and followed that route straight to Morris Isaacson High School where students were leaving the school premises and I decided to stick with that group.”
As the students meandered through Soweto to Orlando High School and the stadium they chanted, “Koloi ya sechaba ha ena mabili suta, suta wena Strydom, suta suta wena Vorster, Ha oo sa suti ee tlo ho repitla.”
Which means: “There is a car moving that belongs to the nation, move away from our path Strydom, move away from our path Vorster for if you don’t do so, this car will crash into you.”
As the protesting pupils arrived at Orlando High the police also arrived at the school and
Kim Heller police spoke through a loud hailer from on top of a police Nyala, “You are going to stop here, you are dispersing now, you are going home, if you don’t do that there is going to be trouble.”
“But the pupils continued to show peace signs and sing freedom songs. However the police opened fire and shot on the students.”
As police continued to shoot, according to Bokala, the pupils scattered and ran in different directions.
“The first victim shot down by the police was Hastings Ndlovu. Fortunately he was not fatally shot, because as soon as he fell to the ground, I reached him and I tried to check his injuries.
“He was had been shot through the heart and the bullet came out through his back. We rushed him to Dr Aaron Matlhare’s surgery in the area. When the driver came back, more and more students were being transported to the nearby clinic and hospitals.”
Bokala was under pressure to report what he had witnessed and was in need of a phone. “I found an old lady who had a phone and paid her R10 and I booked the phone for the whole day. I would run around the streets and then call the office. I only returned to the office at around 8pm that day.”
Police continued to shoot at the pupils who fought back with whatever they could get their hands on. “They used dustbin lids to cover themselves while throwing rocks at the police. Police were firing bullets, I saw people being run over by trucks and cars.”
“I wanted to find out what happened to the other students who were supposed to meet at Orlando West only to discover that what was happening in Orlando was also happening in the vicinity of Morris Isaacson High School.”
“Three leaders of the Urban Bantu Council, including the mayor wanted to go and reprimand the students. I advised them that the students did not want to see anybody that was linked to the government, them going there could only end in tragedy.
“Children died, others were arrested. Leaders of the uprising such as Tsietsi Mashinini and Tebello Motapanyane would help me with their names and addresses. Having to break the news to the parents touched me as much as it touched them.”
The uprising spread to other parts of the country and Bokala, because of his close links to the leaders of the student revolt, became a target of the police and was subsequently arrested in August 1976. He was held in detention for 14 days under section 29 of the Riotous Assemblies Act.
Almost one year later, on June 14, 1977 Bokala linked up with new SASM leader Sechaba Montsetse who was planning the first commemoration of the 1976 uprising at
Cecil Ramonotsi Orlando Stadium. In a twist of fate, Montsetse was arrested and Bokala also found himself behind bars after his arrest under Section 6 of the Terrorism Act.
Bokala was rendered jobless after The World newspaper was forced by the apartheid authorities to close its doors and this happened soon after he was released from jail.
“Thank goodness that Percy Qoboza worked for The Transvaal Post.”
During one of his spells in prison, Bokala was visited with the fond news that ANC leader Oliver Tambo mentioned his reports on the June 16 uprising during a speech to the UN on June 11, 1981.
“When Nelson Mandela was released from prison I went to see him at his Soweto house.
Lawrence Mashabela He said I must tell my father that he wanted to see him. When my father came back from his meeting with Madiba he related to me that Madiba expressed his praise for my work.”
Bokala said aspiring journalists and the youth at large should appreciate the freedoms they enjoy and make greater effort to understand and learn from the country’s history. He said the youth of the June 16 uprising were brave, courageous, determined and reliant on their own strengths and abilities.
“I advise younger journalists to respect and appreciate the freedoms they have and to make some time to get a better knowledge of the liberation history of South Africa.”
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