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The Soweto Uprisings, Counter-Memories of June 1976








9 781770 105010



Sifiso Mxolisi Ndlovu holds a PhD in History from Wits University and his masters in the subject is from the equally prestigious University of Natal, as it was then called.

He is a Professor of History at the University of South Africa, Unisa. Among the nuggets in his CV is that he’s a member of UNESCO’s Scientific Committee responsible for updating the General History of Africa series.


My introduction to his work was through a 1998 book that stretched to no more than 40 pages wherein he gave his eyewitness account of that watershed moment in the history of black township school education - 16 June 1976.

He was only 14 at the time and was a classmate of the relatively more celebrated Seth Mazibuko.

Even from that green Ravan Press book, Ndlovu had always gone against the grain, so to speak. He has written against the popular narrative of that moment in history that has assured youth the role of kingmakers, that wintry day now 41 years past.

If you were to stand up in a crowded room and scream Hastings Ndlovu, very few ears would be pricked, unlike if you shouted the name Hector Pieterson.

Now the challenge posed by Ndlovu’s account - the veracity of which fellow historians have been too indifferent to contest, is that Hastings Ndlovu, and not so much Hector Pieterson, was the first casualty and should be the poster boy - for lack of a phrase, of that fateful day. That is indeed, if the criterion was who died first.

Hastings was 15.

His father was Elliot Ndlovu, principal at Lophama Junior Secondary School in Orlando East, who also doubled up as a Maths teacher.

How Hastings Ndlovu has been airbrushed out of history is not unusual in the machinations of history being written by the victors.

Until the lions learn to speak, the story of the hunt, as the cliche goes, will always glorify the hunter.

But it has always been Ndlovu’s singular preoccupation to speak for the lion.

For four decades now, those who feel qualified to recall the day will tell the story of how the car of a white school inspector was burned down on the grounds of Naledi High School before all hell broke loose and the riots began.

Naledi High is the alma mater of student “leaders” like Popo Molefe, Sibongile Mkhabela, Kgotso Seatlholo, Enos Ngutshane, et al.

Their role in the Soweto Uprisings has subsequently catapulted them to national political office.

But like a certain politician who answered to the title of ‘Dr’ and even insisted on it when he knew throughout that he never earned a doctorate, their version has not always been honest.

Naledi High was not the engine room of the uprisings. And the student ‘leaders’ have never felt the compunction to hasten to clarify this misconception.  

So too Morris Isaacson, that produced the face of the riots, Tsietsi Mashinini. His role is cast in stone. No attempt is made in Ndlovu’s account to deny it.  

But the place where 16 June was actually “cooked” is Phefeni Junior Secondary School where Ndlovu was a pupil.

In a 14 June 2015 article in The Sunday Independent, this reviewer wrote: “Morris Isaacson High School sits like a jewel on the main arterial road through White City in Soweto. It is flanked by Naledi High in the west and Phefeni Senior Secondary in the east.”


“The three schools are now part of what is called the June 16 Soweto Heritage Trail in memory of the student uprisings against the imposition of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction.

Ndlovu does not deny the leadership offered by the Class of ‘76 but he is adamant the older pupils had no dog in the fight.

And it is the view of this reviewer that the “leaders” of the epochal student riots have not gone out of their way to clarify this “little” detail.

Ndlovu writes: “In 1976, I was a 14 year-old Form Two student at Phefeni Junior Secondary School … we dedicated the afternoon lessons in our class, that Afrikaans should be the medium of instruction in our school on a 50:50 basis with English. Ours was one of the schools chosen where the pilot programme of this directive was to be implemented …”

Then he writes, more importantly: “It is worth noting that this only affected Forms One and Two. The senior students - that is, Form Three in our school and at high schools throughout Soweto - were excluded.”

If the “leaders” have always said that they were actually not affected as their classes were in English, they have not said it loud enough, as Ndlovu would not have been pushed to write a second book of “counter-memories of June 1976”.

Now the second most popular myth is about political pressure brought to bear on the students to take up the fight against Afrikaans as a medium of instruction.

The researcher that Ndlovu is, he hauls out confessions by OR Tambo of the exiled ANC then on how the student upheavals caught them off guard. He also quotes Pallo Jordan owing up to the same oversight.

Granted, the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM) was active in the country at the time but Ndlovu says they were virtual children with no political insight when they objected to the use of Afrikaans.

Two days before Friday 16 June 2017, BC stalwart Lybon Mabasa posted a long Facebook interview of Mashinini with Intercontinental Press, of which interview was on Behind the Growing Upsurge in South Africa. The interview with Tsietsi was obtained 9 October 1977 in London.

In the interview Mashinini fleetingly refers to the BCM but it is enough for the likes of Mabasa to try establish a BCM footprint on 16 June 1976.

Sharpeville 1960 - on 21 March when 69 people were gunned down - mostly in the back, has become a political football played by the ANC and the PAC.

So too Soweto. That day in the winter of 1976 has not been spared such revisionism but thanks to the like of Ndlovu, the truth will not altogether be buried underneath the heroism of “leaders”.



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