Saturday, 13 June 2015


I’m going to cheat and jump ahead to my first June 16 in Soweto – the anniversary of a march by thousands of school children to protest against the introduction of Afrikaans as a teaching medium. That fateful day in 1976 when Hector Pietersen was the first to be fatally wounded as police lobbed tear gas, set dogs on the children and then fired at them.

The Madiba jive
In 2001, I was training for priesthood at St James Diepkloof and having a ball. My ‘black’ parish had made me so incredibly welcome that I would often forget my ‘whiteness’. I was learning to sing choruses (very badly) and developing my own version of the Madiba jive.

I loved Sundays in the township. After the morning service I could cross the road, pick up a couple of buns, head for the nearby butchery to collect a piece of steak and cook it on the fire outside. The tavern next door had taken to keeping a good red wine for me. I was getting to know the community. I was making friends I still have today.

Because I was ‘entering the church’ I’d had to give up my ANC membership card and resign from my branch committee but I still felt I had decent political cred. What an idiot! It took a wonderful man, Lekgau Mathabathe, to gently teach me two important lessons.

A retired headmaster of the famous Morris Isaacson High School, Ntate Mathabathe was a hero. He’d unequivocally rejected government’s instruction to teach in Afrikaans. He had also played a crucial role in providing direction and support to students, parents and the community before during and after the protest.

He’d risked his life and been detained. He also knew a great deal about jazz.

As a former political journalist I had written much about what we called ‘the 76 riots’ – the outcomes, the implications. Now I was in a parish close to where major events had unfolded. Many of my parishioners had been involved. My political genes were in overdrive.

The first life lesson came when I complained to Ntate Mathabathe that our youngsters seemed not to take our ‘Struggle’ holidays seriously enough. His gentle response was that perhaps it was what true liberation was all about – a life in which our children weren’t burdened by the oppression their parents had lived under.

My second lesson came as I sat with him and some of our parish grandmothers discussing the awful June 16 events. Looking back I’m not sure our little gathering near the tea urn in the church hall was as coincidental as it seemed at the time. The old man knew I needed educating.

Mothers' heartache
Several of the women had been domestic helpers back in 1976 and they shared their stories. It was stuff I’d known but hardly thought about in my cocoon of white middle class privilege.

In those days ‘the girl’, as even grandmothers were referred to, lived in. Her accommodation in the back yard would have been just big enough to hold a single bed, a chair, a cupboard and a side table. If she was lucky there was hot water in the small adjoining toilet/shower.

Invariably she was allowed no visitors in the evenings, especially not by the man in her life. She started at about 6.30am and finished when the supper dishes were washed.

Her day off was Thursday, usually after she’d finished making the beds and washing the breakfast dishes. If she worked in the leafy northern suburbs of Joburg it would take an hour or more to reach her own home in the location. So there wasn’t much time to attend to it and her family in what was left of the day.

There were no cell phones and few were allowed to use their employer’s landline. TV, introduced in January 1976, was in its fledgling stage. News, always heavily censored, tended to travel via radio and over backyard fences.

On Wednesday June 16, 1976, the first clashes between police and children happened at about 8am. An hour later 10 000 pupils had converged on Orlando West High School. Many years later witnesses would speak of the township being 'on fire'.

South African history had been irrevocably set on a new trajectory.

As news of the march slowly filtered through to the leafy suburbs. Frantic mothers didn’t know if their kids were dead or alive. But there were houses to clean, meals to be cooked, washing to be done, dogs to be fed.

Geographically, socially and politically, life in their employer’s homes was a world apart from the townships. Even the slightest indication of interest in struggle politics meant, at best the loss of much needed employment. Moreover, whites were often as fearful of the regime as blacks were so a domestic helper with a child in the march could be reported to the security police. The few who were given compassionate time off couldn’t get into Soweto.

It was awful even for mothers who were in the townships. The unrest spread. When Mrs Masenya of Alexandra Township, east of Sandton, went to look for her children she was shot in the back by the police whilst crossing an empty stand.

As the St James women told me of the agony they’d gone through - the desperate furtive phone calls, the fearful speculation over fences not being allowed to rush home – they wept, so did I. It was as much for myself as for them.

Despite coming from a family that discussed politics and railed against apartheid at the breakfast table, I had never considered the diabolic effect that June 16 had had on domestic helpers caught up in my world. It was the beginnings of my understanding of why my black friends used ‘white liberal’ as a derogatory term.

A true benchmark
That day next to the tea urn I finally understood that the measure of oppression and political violence must not just be about bullets, body counts and political analytics. A mother’s heartache is among the truer benchmarks.

The women also told of how, despite the township being a cauldron of unrest and the powerful government response, Ntate Mathabathe had risked his life by going to the hospital and the morgue to identify dead and injured kids. It was he who gave them the news all South Africans were being deprived of by an inhumane system.

I will always be grateful for the sharing that day.

Okay, I’ll get off my soapbox, June 16, now called Youth Day, always affects me and I pray that I will never stop learning.  


Peter Nickles said...

Excellent. Thankyou.

sunflowers and khakibush said...

I believe that the retired headmaster Ntate Mathabathe is a very wise man in saying that true liberation is perhaps when children are not burdened by the oppression their parents had lived under. One can remember the anniversary of events, without being obliged to participate in re-enacting them year after year. The Boer war is a prime example of a specific group of people not being able to let go of pain and hurts dating back to the turn of last century. Anyway, that's what I think. :)