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

Chapter 4

The Participants

Lilli Mokganyetsi

(See also: Full Interview)

Lilli Mokganyetsi, now a schoolteacher and language specialist, mother of two, was 16 years old and a student in 1976.

All quotes are from a tape–recorded interview of Lilli Mokganyetsi by Helena Pohlandt–McCormick in Johannesburg in December 1993.

I am from a family of nine children, from a very, very strict family. My father and my mother. There was no one who was better. If you commit anything during the day, in the absence of my father, when he arrived, everything was going to be told to him, and … Normally of course in black communities, the only way that instills discipline is a whip. So now, that is how we grew, and then, we never had a say, we never had to ask anything, the only thing we were supposed to do was to keep … was to go to school, for which intentions we never knew. But we were supposed to go to school.

In 1976, Lilli Mokganyetsi was attending Form 2 (the equivalent of ninth grade) at a secondary school in Tladi, a part of Soweto.

There had a been a few incidents at her school before June 16 — during the May confrontation between students and police at Naledi high school, "that was the first time that we heard of a thing called tear gas, that the whole location was tear–gassed" — but generally things had been quiet.

So now, one day when I came back from school, I found that … you know, parents were cross, everybody was angered. Why? Because there were police who came at Naledi High and then they attempted, or they arrested one student by the name of Enos, … I don't remember the surname quite well. Then, because everything was still abstract, very abstract. I didn't understand what they really meant, but it seems that in high schools there were movements such as SASM, and all those, but I don't know them quite well. Whereby students were given a time, maybe, … to air out their views on their own, something like that. So now, apparently this Enos, maybe he talked bad of the system or … I don't know. That is when the police the following day came to arrest him, and then, suddenly … you know, that was the very first time that blacks had to revolt against the police, from my age, experience. They stoned the police vehicles and they even burnt one in the school yard. And that was the first time that we heard of a thing called tear gas, that the whole location was tear – gassed. But they managed to take him and arrest him, something of that sort, I am not quite sure.

On the morning of June 16, 1976, she had prepared herself as usual and then went to her school bracing herself for the mathematics examination she was to take. All the instructions and questions would be put to her in Afrikaans:

You ultimately learn to know [it] … not because you like it, but because you are being instructed with it. So now, as I say, I was intelligent, I could grasp [it] of course.
It was during the first period, when the teachers were about to issue us with writing material and the question papers. You know … and I was, I wanted to sharpen my pencils, ja. Then I saw a mob of people coming. A mob of … they were of course in school uniform, singing songs that I have never heard of before. You know … as if they were coming … to, to, to, to … invade us, coming to hit us, or … you know I started screaming, jaaiiee. Then, everyone in the school of course rose. You know, we joined them, because they came.

For many like her, the eventfulness of this day was at once heady and frightening. Although not directly involved in its organization, they were nevertheless drawn quickly into the march and its snarled aftermath. An old boyfriend grabbed Lilli's hand, and she quickly overcame her earlier hesitancy:

You know, I just joined in [laughs] … we ran the streets of Soweto, getting into schools, collecting people. Not, no … you know … "Black Power," we were just doing, raising our fists, Black Power, Black Power, Black Power… We traveled the whole of Soweto.
People like us, of course, as I was still doing Form 2, I didn't know what was happening, in fact what was … why, all those points of view, because they said we were revolting against Afrikaans. But why?
[A]t about 5 P.M., everything was, … all the, … the whole location as it was, it was filled with smoke … teargas … smoke from burning cars, smoke from burning building, like beer halls of course.

And then parents aren't yet at home because they were at work. Now when trains came, you know, they could feel the tension, and, maybe they were also listening to radios where they were at work. You know, everybody was just running home for safety, while others, at other families, when parents arrived they found that, either children have been killed, either children have been shot at, they are at hospital, and all those.

Lilli's story came from right inside the uprising. Her initial lack of experience lent it a quality that made that story perhaps the most searing.

Without a doubt, parents were deeply concerned with the safety of their children, and many tried to prevent their children from going out during those dangerous days or from joining demonstrations.

So now she told me: "When I come back, I want this, this, this, this done. You shouldn't go. Those Boers are going to kill you. They are going to shoot you to hell."

In the end, parents had little control, as their jobs took them far out of the townships, and children simply waited:

I was waiting for my mum, for my parents to go, because I knew they were going to scold at me. So now, after they went away …
After she left I said "good gracious" then, you know I just prepared myself and then my friends were waiting for me in the corner, at the corner. We went.

Fear was not an unusual emotion:

I still remember I was frightened… I just remained behind, thinking that everything is over now. But the teachers, principals, they were also, you know, everybody was just frightened.

The inexperience of those who were young really stood out in their memories, and Lilli several times commented on her lack of knowledge and the newness of what she was experiencing. Despite the distance in years from these events, Lilli's story reverberated with some of her ambivalence at the time. She had "even forgotten" what her brother had said the night before. Echoing at times Paul Ndaba's recollections1, her story is full of references to her inexperience, her naiveté:

[…] everything was still abstract, very abstract. I didn't understand what they really meant, but it seems that in high schools there were movements such as SASM, and all those, but I don't know them quite well.


I don't know.

For Lilli, the influence of siblings was less direct: On the evening before the planned demonstration in sympathy with the students who had been protesting the imposition of Afrikaans as a language of instruction in African schools, a curious conversation took place between her and her brother:

I still remember on the 16th we were to write Mathematics, in Afrikaans of course. When I arrived at home, he said, are you going to demonstrate tomorrow? I said what is "demonstration," I don't know, what are you talking about [laughs] … I'm sorry? No, he said, no, are you going to go about with placards? What is a "placard," then? [brother:] Poster. What is a "poster"? [laughs] You know I couldn't just understand … anything, let alone demonstration on its own. [brother:] No man, I have heard that students will be demonstrating tomorrow against this Afrikaans as a medium of instruction. I wonder what's going to happen. And I said, no, what are you talking about, do you mean we are not going to school? He said, no, man, you've got to go to school. You go to your school, they will show you how to "demonstrate." You don't understand, you.

Change came quickly, though, 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:

I remember quite well, it was on the 23rd of September, on Thursday. We were supposed to march to town. Because we knew that we wouldn't, we wouldn't be allowed to move from here to town. They are going to block us somewhere. So, this time the mechanism was, from five o'clock we should board this train. We'd buy tickets, because the means of transport then was buses, eheh, I mean trains. Taxis weren't so much established like this [now]. So now we are making use of trains. And then I did so.

Lilli became very active in the student movement, and, despite being shot by the police at one point, continued attending marches. Her story takes us deep inside the activities of the student movement:

I mean that time it was, parents were crying, you know, parents were crying there children were disappearing by day, every day. And you know, when parents were crying … I was the person who was taking all these kids. I mean in our vicinity, you know. Have you seen this … something like for instance your mother getting to a neighbors, crying, no my children are not at home, I have learned that they have skipped the country, what, what, what. You know, I would be there, knowing very much that I am this person who took them.

After student activists learned that she had been shot in one of the marches, they approached her and introduced her to Dr. Nanaoth Ntshuntsha, a Soweto naturopath. At first she had been suspicious, surprised at the "shabbiness of the house, not to say it was dirty, you know, just not what we really expect from a doctor's house," and, being unfamiliar with the word homeopath on the diplomas he showed her, she looked it up in the dictionary. He asked after her name and translated from Perpetua, her middle name: he never referred to her by anything but "Everlasting" after that. It quickly became clear that she was not there for treatment of "this hand [that] was really troubling me. You know when I woke up, it would be as swollen as this, and I can't do anything and if you get to the doctor, there is nothing they can help me."

[H]e said to me, please Everlasting, if there are boys whom you know that police are looking for, interview them in style, and if they want to go to Russia, you bring them to me. Please. OK, so now you know, this, every day, I was moving from home to that doctor.

For several months, Lilli became the go–between who facilitated the way out of Soweto for those boys who were in hiding. Some of the stories of participants of the uprising thus revealed that young women and girls were quite central to the uprising, although their experiences were often quite different. Young women and girls used their very "invisibility" to the eyes of exclusively male police force to perform some of the movement's most important tasks, including facilitating communication networks between male activists in hiding.

I was now organizing for him [Ntshuntsha], all the boys in the location. You know, some of them, when I look at them now, I just close my eyes. I was organizing people for him. Fortunately enough, in our neighborhood, the very following house next to us, there were boys whom we were attending with at the very secondary, but they were not staying there, they were staying in Moletsane and such another township. But so indeed they were staying in our neighborhood, the very next door house. And it was only boys, it was only boys. You know, during the day, they are not there. It's only one. You could see that there was something happening, maybe they were running away from police from their homes. So now, one day, I … approached him, I said, why are you staying here? He said, no I am looking after my sister's children. You know, I went, but I could guess that he was running away from police. Then I gave [told] him everything. He said: I am telling the truth? I said, yes. But I'm not going there with a group, a mob, I am going with you alone, let's go there. We went there, everything was successful. The first group of boys went away. There were eight. They went away [her voice almost a whisper].

For a while she was even able to outsmart her father, who had "noticed that there was a certain movement here." To his questions she replied that friends had introduced her to a doctor who could help her with the hand that by this time was hurting her very much. Upon his request, she took her father to see the homeopath. Although her father was as surprised as she had been at the condition of his house,

they discussed, they made a conversation, he … My father … is not professioned but he has been to school, he understands this. He also is in the very same thing, he doesn't, although he doesn't do anything. But he understands, this is the time we have been oppressed, and then we have got to do something. Although he is not one of those [activists] … but he understands. OK, he discussed with this man, he discussed, he discussed. And then, you know we were not paying him anything. But my father said, no, how can that really happen. He said, no I am serving for the black community. He said, even though, but I feel it's unfair. I feel, I am going to give you … anything maybe you might be often here. Then he gave him something, you know, just a little fee. So now the problem of healing was over.

For a while Lilli would tell about Dr. Ntshuntsha to those who needed a way out. She would interview them and give them directions to his house, from where they would be taken to the border. She was supposed to leave with Dr. Ntshuntsha and the last group he was to take across the border in December 1976. Her older sister, however, alerted her father. It was a time when, as Zakes Molotsi put it, "[M]ost of us, our parents … parents just [saw] everyone disappear":

Then my father addressed me, very strongly. That was the first time that I have seen my father as pained as that. He said to me: [I] don't say you mustn't do anything. But look now, you are still doing Form 2, Form 2. I don't say you mustn't … you can, but first of all, if you leave now you must know that you are not sure that wherever you are going, you are going to be taken care of. You don't know whether you are going to have a bed to sleep on, whatever… You see … so many things. So now, it is wise for you to attend school, at least if you have passed your Matric, you can do anything. Then you'll be our ambassador maybe. The following day he took me again to the shop. So that I should lose contact with this man. And of course, I lost contact with him. The day when they … when now I knew that it was supposed … it was on the sixth of December, when Dr. Ntshuntsha was supposed to leave the country with Jabu and me. Two weeks thereafter we heard, I read in the newspaper that Dr. Ntshuntsha has been arrested on trying to cross the border, Jabu was shot, but he managed to escape, they don't know whether he is still alive, or what. Dr. Ntshuntsha is at the Natal prison, Pietermaritzburg prison. So now I could have been part of it. That was the last time that I ever heard of Dr. Ntshuntsha. That was the last time that I ever heard of people who are sent.

Dr. Nanaoth Ntshuntsha was detained on December 14, 1976. According to the South African Institute of Race Relations, which reported on the case, his wife was refused permission to see him and could not find out where he was being held. On January 11, 1977, the security police reported that he had been found dead in his cell three days earlier. He had allegedly torn a vest into strips and hanged himself. 2

Lilli's father, invoking all of his parental and fatherly authority, sent her away to boarding school in Pietersburg, in the homeland of Lebowa, north of Johannesburg. After that, she remembered, things changed and "everything wasn't just as good from there on." Even as her own perspective of the conditions of black South Africans became more sophisticated and she began to understand what she had been fighting for, she found herself in a setting in which "everything it's wrong, you don't have a say, you don't have to ask, everything it's dictated to you. If you ask if you start asking the principal why are you setting us this type of food whereas we pay him, then you are chased away from school." If the students addressed oppression or asked a question, they were immediately labeled "politician, and then they would chase you away. Before chasing you away, police has to come in the school premises, harass you, take you to jail." Other realities quickly changed her life, and her choices were dictated by responsibilities—women's responsibilities—to her own child and the other children in her family:2

[W]hen I was doing Form 5, I got pregnant, and then I had to leave school and then I stayed at home. At home … you know, it was so painful, then after giving birth, you know, the immediate thing that I could grab was this teaching. So you know, I even felt somehow that, because we are that family of nine, I'm number four. There are still five kids who my parents have to take to school. It seems now if I am to get to the varsity I'm going to deprive the others, because when I was in boarding school, of course, I had everything that I wanted. Everything, so now I felt let me grab this, at least at college it's not so expensive. And then if I would let to further my studies, I would do that while working a family home now. Soo, that is why.

[T]hen I completed my Matric there, and then when I did my college education I went to Kwakwa in the Free State, completed there, and then I started teaching in 1986 at Mutse [?] the very town, in KwaNdebele.


Note 1: Paul Ndaba, in Sifiso Mxolisi Ndlovu, The Soweto Uprisings: Counter–memories of June 1976 (Randburg, South Africa: Raven Press, 1998), 34–35. back

Note2: After the revelation that, during autopsy, unauthorized incisions had been made on the dead man's body, thus possibly obscuring any evidence of foul play on the part of the police, an official inquest into his death revealed that he had been in solitary confinement at the time of his death after being questioned for three days by Springs Security Police" and that "on his ears were marks that could have been caused by electrical contact;" the court ruled that the death had been by hanging, probably suicide, and that "no living person could be held responsible" (South African Institute of Race Relations, Survey of Race Relations in South Africa: 1977 [Johannesburg: SAIRR, 1978], 155; and South African Institute of Race Relations, Detention without Trial in South Africa, 1976–1977 [Johannesburg: SAIRR, 1977], 55–56). The Rand Daily Mail reported on 2 February 1977 that 3,000 people attended his funeral and that a student leader who had paid tribute to the dead detainee said he had been "a man who worked for the students and was dedicated to the liberation of the oppressed in the country" (Rand Daily Mail, 7 February 1977). back