“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

Patience Tshetlo

(See also: Full Interview)


Patience Tshetlo, a domestic worker, a nanny and long-time cook, was 44 years old in 1976. At the time of the uprising, she was at home looking after her several young children.

All quotes are from a tape-recorded interview of Patience Tshetlo by Helena Pohlandt-McCormick in Johannesburg in June 1995.

Patience Tshetlo experienced the uprising first-hand but was somewhat removed from the unfolding events by her age. The shock of the exploding conflict was almost palpable, and, as for many parents, the distance quickly evaporated with the realization that it was their children who stood at the center of the shots and the flames.

It started early in the morning, but we heard about it, it was about two o'clock when it spread to our location, mmh. It was terrible. My little daughter, came with a … sweets, a packet of sweets. They were starting to loot… The trucks, everything was burning now that time. And it was worst during the night. The other location in front of Dobson street … oohoohooh … it was so many guns there the whole night, but they didn't find anybody. I think they were taking those who were shot there. Because we didn't see anyone there…

So you think the police were taking the bodies away?

Jaah, mmh, immediately, because you couldn't find anybody. I remember, it was, because they were burning the bottle store, they were looting beers everything. My older son was working in bottle store in Phefeni. When it started, because they were so near, this children were starting … They just closed the bottle store and then he left his nice shoes there, he just went with the shoes he was working with. The following day the bottle store was burnt. It was closed.

For Patience Tshetlo, as a mother of four, the vantage point was a different one, as was the meaning of family. She found herself at an entirely different stage of her life at the time of the uprising. It was one that determined both her position toward it at the time and the way she now started the story: her image of family no longer recalled the parents that shaped her but, instead, the children who have come from her and who, by their very involvement in the uprising, walked a path away from her. It was thus a beginning establishing a context not of the past but of the present and the future:

It was on the 16th, on Wednesday when it started. My daughter, […] she is the one she was attending that school, where it started, at Phefeni … yes, yes, at Phefeni high school. They were there… She was born 1958 … oh ja, on, she was born on March [hesitates], March 25… It's Loretta … Loretta Busisiwe Tshetlo.

I've got my son, firstborn, and then Loretta, and the other daughter, she was also a scholar that time, she was really involved. She nearly got to exile. But she … in 1976, June, they closed the school, and they opened on July ['77?]. Oh it was so terrible, they were fighting there, they couldn't attend school … in '77, in July, ja, later. And then the school they closed until such time they were reopened. I even send them to Pietersburg, because it was terrible here.

Patience Tshetlo also grew up in a rural town, and her parents invested heavily in their last-born daughter's education:

[A]fter Standard 4, I went to Harrismith and passed my Standard 6, and then I went to St. Hilda's in Ladysmith for domestic science … for two years. I took the cheapest because there was no money.

Her own experience of having to take hygiene classes in Afrikaans as early as 1948, and her experience of the potential of education, even in a field so humble as domestic science, which had secured her a position as a cook for a large company canteen for many years, made her sympathetic to the students of Soweto and to their call to be heard:

I agreed with them because they were doing the right thing. Because we can't speak to anyone, they can't listen to us.

Children were often driven out of school early by force of economic and family circumstances. For many, this meant the end of school altogether. In most cases, children would return to school only when parents or other family members had overcome financial difficulties. Patience Tshetlo said her "father used to [keep] goats … [with] wool, like sheep, but they are goats with this big long hair. He used to send me to school with that. He'll cut the wool on April for the session up to June, and then in September again." Then he would sell the wool and send his daughter back to school. Overall, this meant that the average age of children completing all 12 years of primary and secondary education rose dramatically for black school children.

As an adult, Patience Tshetlo clearly experienced the uprising more acutely as a bystander, drawn into the conflict not as an active protagonist but as a mother:

Yes, they [the children] went to school.

Did they tell you beforehand that something might happen?

No, they didn't tell us anything. They didn't tell us anything. Only we saw … because we are not far from that … Mofolo Village, Dube. And then there … we saw the fire was burning that time, and then they came home, they said, … [there was a] riot. They were marching and then the police shot them.

She was simultaneously sympathetic to and fearful for her children.

Patience "always asked, what's going on now today, now today, oohh. It was terrible," she remembered, self-conscious about the lack of action and courage among her own cohort:

[E]ven you are waiting at work, we are getting that lesson, you couldn't say a thing. Special I started to work … here at Hillbrow. I was looking after a little girl, five years old. You could work in the day time and then, you stay in again, they come at two, maybe one o'clock, in the morning, they will just say thank you. You go and then, wake up again in the morning six o'clock and come and work. We were coward, because we couldn't say,"No, you can't go, I can't work for the whole day and whole night." So the children they were telling us because we are coward, you couldn't do a thing.

So you agreed with them?

Yes. I agreed with them because they were doing the right thing. Because we can't speak to anyone, they can't listen to us. Even you can say, who? To whom you could speak that time.

She talked to her children as best she could about what was happening.

I said you mustn't go there. I said you mustn't go, because the police will kill you. They said: "What about those who have, who have been killed? They are always, they are also … somebody's children. Even if we are dead, we don't care." You know the children that time, they didn't care anything. Even [if] they can die, they didn't care anything.

Her words reflected some of the respectful astonishment that, during these violent days, the students' courage inspired in many adults, some of whom, however, were also critical of the violent anger of the children:

Aie-sh, ai, ai. You know if the police didn't shoot, there wouldn't be any riot, ja. Oooh, that time now the children, even the small one like this, they were so [angry], you couldn't go, they could kill and burn you … even the small ones.
Oooh, the mothers were so sad, about this thing. Others were furious. Others they were saying, oh these children, they are naughty. How can they do this thing?
One day, they said, … it was a stay away. And parents went to work. You know down in the platform, these children were there, at seven o'clock in the morning with belts they were hitting fathers, and they were running coming back. Is where they were furious, these children, there is no respect, these children, how can they hit us. And these children said: "If we are telling you that you are not going to work, you must obey us, because we are fighting for you. Because you are cowards. Because you are old now, you didn't even do a thing." They called us, we are cowards, we are afraid of this… They were right. They were right, because you couldn't even say a thing.

From Patience Tshetlo we also get a sense of how a profession might have shaped the thinking of a person and contributed to this ambivalence. Her husband had retired from the South African Police by the time of the uprising, but his attitude toward the students was critical nonetheless, and it may have reflected not only his closer position to and sympathies with the state but also generational differences:

Auh, my husband used to shout these children, because he was [a policeman], you know how are the policemen. He doesn't agree with all this thing. He didn't want them to do this. Mmmh. That's why they were scared even this …, Thelma didn't tell me, they were in John Vorster, because [s]he was afraid of his father. She usually told me everything, but not his father.

And you, did you keep it secret?

Yes, I didn't tell him [laughter]. I didn't tell him. You know, about myself, you know. I like this. If I was still a young kid, I will also be there. [Emphasis added.]

Patience Tshetlo's story was in many ways evocative of the everyday suffering under apartheid and the grind of poverty. The story above about her son's shoes was both a reflection of how little the family could afford to lose and a recognition of the mundane concerns that had to be set aside during these days. She seemed to have few moral qualms about the looting, for example, but she was fearful of the police and of the violence:

And then they came to our bottle store there was a bottle store at Mofolo North. They looted there. I tried to go. I said no, let me go and get beer for my husband. When I went, I was just near, ooohhooh, I went back. I said, oh, the policemen will shoot me there. I went back, I didn't go inside. […] everybody was passing our street with cases, others with… I said, no, let me go and try. Oooh, I was so afraid, I just stand by there and then I said, oooh, I will go inside … maybe my bad luck and the police will come and shoot me. I went home without nothing. [laughs]

Her daughters attended school at Phefeni High School and at Phefeni Junior Secondary School. The younger one "was really involved. She nearly got to exile." Patience remembered that her younger daughter was the courageous one, active on behalf of the SSRC in the schools and a participant in the attempted march on John Vorster Square to claim the release of students who had been detained.

She was the one, she was involved in this. […] that time, that time. She even told me that they [the SSRC] have told them, she doesn't know when it will be, but they are going to take them to exile… Those … SRC, they were in charge in schools. Mhmhmhm. She didn't know [how that would happen].

Did she want to go?

Yes, but she was crying, telling me that she will miss me, but she doesn't know when she will go. [Emphasis added]

Patience Tshetlo and her husband invoked their powers as parents, possibly more effectively because their children were girls, whom they "sent … to Pietersburg, their father sent them to Pietersburg":

Oooh, is better because I didn't have a boy that time. Because maybe it would … you know the other parents, their children were lost that time, they don't know where are they. Maybe if I had a boy, a little boy of 16, 17, I wouldn't know where he is now.
Ja, if I didn't send them to Pietersburg, she wouldn't be here, she would be in exile.

Those who experienced the uprising made their allegiances to its leaders very clear:

And this one, Tsietsi, […] You know he was a nice guy. The time the police were looking for him, they couldn't find him, because he was like a girl. He wears the clothes for girls, shoes, and just pass through the police. They couldn't see him, … yes… Because now, they … one, they were, they said, if somebody can get Tsietsi, …. I don't know how much they offer, I don't remember… It's when he went to exile.