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The John Robbie show, June 16, 1993
What happened from your point of view:
Guest, Murphy Morobe.
Interviewer John Robbie.
… eye witness news: … four people have been shot dead in a Soweto squatter camp. The attack, in the Klipspruit Squatter camp, came on the
eve of the anniversary of the Soweto riots … The anniversary of the June 16 uprising has got off to a quiet start today. A number of rallies
are planned. We go live now to Soweto, on the line now is 702's Debra Patter …: fresh flowers are strewn across the grave of Hector Pieterson,
who was one of the first victims of the June 16th uprising. Above, the tombstone reads: deeply mourned by his parents, sisters and a nation
that remembers. And that is essentially what residents of Soweto will be doing today, commemorating the student protests that began seventeen
years ago and ended with so many loosing their lives. Later this morning the traditional wreath will be laid at the Hector Pieterson memorial,
which marks the site where students were shot in 1976. This will be followed by a rally at the Orlando stadium, addressed by ANC president
Nelson Mandela. …
… June the 16th will never be forgotten because events that started in Soweto on this day in 1976, the Soweto uprising, the Soweto riots,
the student unrest … call it what you will. Doc Pekhatsha, writing in the Metro Section of the [Sunday] Times last weekend says that the
only perplexing thing about June the 16th is that experiences were not written down. What happened. What were the motives of remembrance
and with hopes that it will never have to happen again. Let's try and get some of those memories. Tell us what happened to you. Give us a
buzz … the lines are open … if you were involved, tell us about it. Were you a student, a parent, a policeman, a businessman in Jo'burg
who only heard about things. Maybe you were a housewife in … I don't know … Sandton. Give us a buzz, tell us about it. We want to get a
handle on what happened to ordinary people on that day. Your story, with no [political] point scoring or finger pointing, whatever. Let us
just remember. The lines are open, they're filling up, they're absolutely full. Give us a buzz … In the studio, a man who was very much
involved. His name is synonymous with the UDF. But in 1976 he was involved with the South African Students' Movement [SASM], later with the
Soweto Students' Representative Council [SSRC] … Welcome, Murphy Morobe. Murphy, thanks for coming in and talking to us.
Good morning, John.
Your emotions today. Are they happy or sad?
I think … my emotions around June 16th, 1993 are both a mixture of sadness and joy. I think sadness in the sense that what one sees
happening, especially in the education field, it's something which I is a tragedy for this country, because 17 years later, some of the things
that in fact set us off onto the streets are still in fact prevalent in the education system in this country. I think there is a dash of
happiness in the sense that the efforts that we began in 1976, have begun paying off, as you can see, with the current negotiations taking
place. And in fact more and more people are becoming hopeful of the possibility of a resolution to the Apartheid question in this country.
So very mixed emotions?
It is mixed emotions, yes.
Give us a little bit about your background. I mean you are a Soweto kid.
Yes, I actually grew up in Soweto. My entire primary and high school education was in Soweto, and high school being at Morris Isaacson high
school in 1976 where I was doing my Matric. And then the rest of my life subsequent to that was spent behind bars in various prisons in the
country, and eventually on Robben Island, where I served a sentence on account of my activities around the June 16th activities. And on my
return I then became involved as a trade union organizer with the General and Allied Workers' Union, and thereafter the UDF, and went on later
to get involved in a business organization, PG Beyerson, where I am presently working as a manager.
Were you politicized before '76, or before the issue of Afrikaans in schooling? Were you a political person, or was that the key, the catalyst?
Well, I belonged to a group of young students who in those days were like the politically minded ones, where we belonged to the SASM, which was
established in 1972. And I became active from late '73, '74 onwards in that students movement. And one of the key issues that we'd always
address in that organization was the whole problem of Bantu Education, which was something that we saw as only meant to perpetuate, in fact,
the dictates, and in fact the ideas of Verwoerd, and we strongly objected to that. And of course in those days there were very few of us
student activists, who were conscious and were trying to encourage other students to partake and to realize in fact the need for us to do
something about our lot. And one would say, therefore, that one had been politically minded in fact throughout the period.
You said there were relatively few of you initially. What would … how did people react to you? Parents, and maybe teachers, business leaders.
Were you seen as trouble makers?
Well, look, I think that in the seventies in particular … and remember that it was in fact a decade after the Rivonia Trial in 1963, and the
extent of our community being subdued by the repression of the 1960s was so pervasive that even our own parents … it was actually very
difficult to find us engaged in political discussions. Even the name of Nelson Mandela in those days was something that had to be whispered
about and not spoken about too loudly. So for us, therefore, it was always a challenge, and in fact a pursuit of more knowledge, wanting to
know more about what had happened in our history. So in those days, therefore, even teachers could not be seen talking politics, because the
Security Police were all over the show and in fact many people fell victim. When we formed SASM in 1972, 1973 was to become in fact a seminal
year for SASM, it was one year after its formation. Many of its leaders went underground, were arrested, some were banned and some went into
exile. And subsequently we got involved in the business of trying to reestablish the organization in 1974. And to do that we had to run a
gauntlet of teachers who were not too sympathetic to us. But there were in fact various other school, like at Morris Isaacson, were the
conditions were relatively more liberal in terms of allowing us the freedom to even choose topics that we could get involved in debates, during
our Friday debating sessions, where we could use … introduce some relevant subjects to those issues. So, in a sense, one would say that,
once there was a greater degree …, one wouldn't say even resistance, I think it was fear, mixed in fact with a lack of desire to get involved
in activities, which we … people had seen in the sixties, resulted in imprisonment and people being sentenced to life imprisonment on Robben
Island, so …
That sets the scene, and yet, what happened in '76? Now, I was interested last night to read that, apparently, the issue, or maybe the straw
that broke the camel's back was the issue of Afrikaans being taught. But apparently that issue was put through, that issue was decided on in
1974. Why did it take till 1976? What was the, what was the flash-point that caused it?
Yes, I think if one looks at it historically … this was a Broederbond decision, as we subsequently got to know, which goes back as far as 1974.
And I think by 1975 it was announced, and I think, as an issue for us at SASM, it first landed on our desk as the South African Students'
Movement, as a key issue around which we had always looked for … issues around which to mobilize and get students to be involved and to be
more aware of their situation as students in an Apartheid and Bantu Education environment. And when the issue was introduced in 1975, it was
at levels whereby, it was introduced at the junior secondary and late, higher primary, like standard six and Form one, Form two, Form three.
Now, we were at high school at that point doing Matric, and we were not directly affected by that issue. But I think that the extent to which
it affected our people, the students and the teachers, was quite dramatic because we had students and teachers [student teachers?] coming to
us complaining about the fact they are not in a position to teach mathematics in Afrikaans, physical sciences in Afrikaans, etc. But we looked
at the underlying reasons for that and one of the key reasons was a desire on the part of the authorities to ensure that Afrikaans becomes the
language of this country. And we saw it as being forced to learn through the language of what we considered to being the oppressor.
So was it an opportunity, then? Did you use this issue, which was one of many issues and decide you were going to focus your opposition on that?
Was it a conscious decision to make that the flashpoint?
It wasn't a conscious decision to use it as a flashpoint. It was a key issue, which in fact was so deep in our communities that,
given the extent of our own political and social consciousness, there was no way as responsible student leaders, that we could have let it go
by. We had to do something about it.
So you were channeling this anger?
We were channeling the anger. And I think for us, a demonstration was the notion that immediately came to mind. But even as we thought of a
demonstration, there continued to be memories of what happened in Sharpeville, even though in fact what happened subsequently June 16 was not
really part of our plan, the students, but the fact that it happened was in itself at that point a reflection of the intensity of the situation
on the ground.
We are talking to Murphy Morobe. He was a student leader in 1976, then we're going to throw the lines open. We're looking for memories. Murpy
is telling us about it from his perspective, and then we're going to get your memories. June the 16th, 1976. A motive for doing it is
remembrance, a motive for doing it is so that people might say, well let us make sure that this never will happen again, will never have to
happen again. That is the motive, just tell us what it was like from your point of view, what happened, little things, details on the day
wherever you were. Give us a buzz … Well, you planned it, the night before, what were you doing the night before. And tell us what your
intention was. What did you expect then? What did you want to happen the next day? And then we'll talk about what actually happened.
The night before, I think, was a night where we spent preparing ourselves for the march, and the preparation was to be in the form of us
preparing the necessary placards, that were to [be] put up, and to raise the issues that we wanted raised in the march. Like "away with
Afrikaans," etc. and "down with Bantu education." Now, our preparation was such that we saw ourselves on this day marching from all different
points of Soweto, towards Orlando West high school, where one of the junior secondary schools which had been longest in boycotting classes
around Afrikaans issue was located. And the idea was that we would be marching towards that point as a way in which we are going to pledge our
solidarity with that secondary school and thereafter in fact we are going to look towards the situation where we would anticipate and expect a
response from the authorities in terms of our demands that we are going to place on that day. And the idea was, that subsequent to that we are
going to have a mass rally, where the student leaders, Tsietsi Mashinini and them, would be able to address the students and thereafter in fact
break off the march. And, the planning as far as June 16th was concerned, there was no grand plan that extended for days and for months. In
fact the plan was basically for that day to conduct a march where we could actually raise our objections and pledge solidarity.
How many people actually marched? Any, any estimates?
Look, we … almost all of the high schools in Soweto marched. And I think that one, one, when one talks about numbers it is difficult to
estimate, but it literally ran into the thousands because there was no high school that did not go out …
Was that more or less than you expected?
I think it was more than we expected. I think that the … the … the message of the issue was exemplified when almost all the students came
out. Even at primary schools. We tried our best to discourage primary school children at that point from joining us in the march, and we
actually arranged such that … in fact they could be advised to be dispersed early and to not join the march.
Why was that? Because you were worried …
We were worried. I think that there was a concern, we wanted to restrict the activities largely to high school students, those who were directly
affected by this. And also, in fact, the degree of responsibility that in fact one could place on high school students was different from what
you could place on primary school children. So, we had to make … we tried to make that distinction.
When did you realize that … I don't know … [hesitates] that you'd unleashed a monster, that this was going to get much bigger and in fact
South Africa would never be the same again? At what point did you realize that?
That came about the morning of June the 17th, you know when one woke up to see the extent of what had happened .. the whole night of the 16th
and the morning of the 17th. And the state finally coming up with a decision to close schools down as a way of trying to exert control. Now,
it became so difficult for us to even try to figure how to go about trying to bring the situation under control, because in terms of our own
budgeting … we hadn't budgeted for a situation where the police were going to react in the way in which they did on June 16th.
But surely you must have considered it. I mean you mentioned that your concerns about Sharpeville, the memory of Sharpeville. There must have
been a small part of you that said, this could get out of control.
Definitely. I think that small part is actually exemplified by the fact that, throughout those marches, as we moved towards Orlando West high
schools, the extent of discipline amongst the students was quite tremendous. And I think that things started getting out of hand as soon as
the police reacted the way they did, and …
Sorry, we're going to talk about that now. Okay we've set the background for the march. Murphy Morobe, one of the leaders is going to talk about
it. Is going to tell us what happened to him. And then we are going to take your calls. Again, I stress, it's out of remembrance. Let's try and
avoid finger pointing, let's look forward … it's out of remembrance, a day that changed South Africa. Alright, your memories, where you were.
Maybe you … I'd love to hear from someone who was involved in the police. Murphy is talking about when the police were there, when they came,
it got out of hand. Tell us what it was like from your perspective. What orders you got … what were you told to do … what were you told not
to do, and maybe some of the tales that can give us all a handle on this incredible day … the lines are open, the lines are full, Jeff is
there, Ron is there, Mphilo is there, Dr. A is there from Vereeniging … another caller coming in. We'll get to your calls just now. Let me
remind you that …
… In the studio we have Murphy Morobe, former deputy chairperson of the Soweto Students' Representative Council, and he served on the SASM
action committee. We're talking about June 16th, 1976 … When it started to go wrong, describe exactly what happened, where were you, what
We converged on Orlando West from different points. And as soon as our main column had actually marched, and then there was another column that
came from the far west of Soweto, from … with Naledi High being the leader of that particular phalanx, and as they actually converged on
Orlando West, it is at that point that the police drove up and moved in behind the column as we descended on the … the valley towards the
high school. And at that point there was a great deal of excitement, anxiety and concern amongst us in the student leadership and a lot of
concern amongst students as to what was likely to happen now.
Could you see this or did you hear about his later? You realized this had happened?
I realized this had happened, yes. We saw the police move in with their police vans and they actually stood behind us, on a …, on an incline,
on a hill. And they moved out of their vans, and it is at that point that one of them, in fact let loose a police dog, who actually rushed into
the crowd. And that caused a great deal of panic amongst the students, so that to actually ward the dog off students had to use various things
to try to actually push the dog back. It is around that point in time that the police lined up, and at that time, a few canisters of teargas
were shot. And, if you recall, I mean we, we hadn't had experience of teargas in the townships for …, I mean especially in those years, and
for many us as students it was like the first time we had to experience this, and the teargas canister shot going off … For many people—it
may be teargas—but it could be, it could be real live ammunition going off. And that actually angered the students. Because there was no
visible, there was no clear communication between the police and the students in terms of what in fact they were expecting us to do.
But didn't the people kill the dog? Didn't I read that? The students killed the dog that was released into them?
Well it was either them or the dog at that point in time. There was a dog that was killed at that point, yes.
So the teargas went off. There was confusion. What happened then?
There was confusion … and at that point there was, the stone throwing began at the police, and live ammunition was actually used. And as the
police were moving out of the area, that's when some of them started shooting directly into the crowd at quite close range, and it's at that
point that Hector Pieterson was shot and killed.
Did you see that? I mean … that incredible photograph that has gone around the world? Where you there? Did you see that act?
Yes, I saw the act, and I saw Hector being actually put into a car that belonged to a … a press car at that point, and trying to get him to
hospital in time, and he died there. And …
So what happened then? Was it just total anarchy?
And from then onwards it was total anarchy. And some of us in the student leadership regrouped, and we made a decision of trying to get people
to dispersed. And we got hold of one of the journalists, in fact, who had a car, allowed us to use his car to drive around the crowd with two
of my other colleagues we drove around and sought out a loudhailer which we got hold of from …, we went over to Gibson Kente's place and were
able to secure a loudhailer, which we were able to use to drive around and actually shout the students, and asking people to disperse from that
area. But, some questions that were posed at us … 'you say that we must disperse, where must we go to, this is our township' … you know.
At that point we tried our best and we … when we went to the hospital to look at people who had been shot and injured, it was whilst on our
way there that we encountered in fact more police reinforcements making their way into the Orlando West area. And we had to drive back to
actually show more exigency in trying to get people to disperse.
Before we get to the lines … Is there any feeling of guilt on your part. Was there any feeling that, had you not called this march, that
Hector Pieterson would be alive today?
Well, look, I think that for … for anybody who is responsible, perhaps not then, but also in hindsight. You, you get to a point where you
look at ways in which you could have done certain things differently. And I think it is only right that one does it, especially where you are
dealing with events that involve people and that require people's support.