Forty Years Since the Soweto Riots
This is the 40th-year anniversary of one of the events that is said to have brought black rule in South Africa: the Soweto riots of 1976. The riots–now officially known as an “uprising”–are so central to the myths of black liberation that June 16, the day the violence began, is now celebrated as a national holiday known as “Youth Day.” The holiday was declared in 1995, the first full year of black rule, and is now one of the most important days on the propaganda calendar.
The “uprising” is portrayed today as heroic resistance to the apartheid regime’s decision to make Afrikaans rather than English the language of instruction in black public schools. Students recognized that English was the language of openness to the world and of liberation, whereas Afrikaans was the language of the Boer oppressor and a hated symbol of apartheid. They spontaneously boycotted classes, marched in demonstrations, and were slaughtered in the streets by racist white police. This brave act of resistance was a crucial step in the development of the black liberation movement and the rise of Nelson Mandela’s ANC.
What really happened, and what is the true legacy of the riots?
South Africa in the 1970s–40 years ago–was very different from today. It was peaceful and prosperous apart from the oil crisis, which caused a dramatic rise in the price of fuel. Also, until shortly before the Soweto riots, the country did not have television. There was a burgeoning reading culture, with well-stocked libraries for children, as well as radio that offered both soaps and high-brow recorded dramas. There were even broadcasts of rhyming epics composed by some of our famous poets.
The absence of television also shielded us from the 1960s radicalism in the West. We only read about student protests and left-wing terrorists such as the German Baader-Meinhof gang, Italy’s Red Brigades or the US Weather Underground. The average person knew nothing about the West’s great shift to the Left, with socialist parties coming to power in Western Europe, especially Scandinavia. Jimmy Carter was elected president in 1976; he was the first American president to take an anti-white stance against South Africa.
We were less decadent than other Western countries. Drugs were something one only read about, apart from a few hippie communes in Johannesburg and Cape Town. Most white girls were not promiscuous; we were amazed to see women in Hollywood movies sleeping with a man on a first date. Sports were big, and we were surprised when other countries refused to play our national teams.
We were hardly aware of America’s race riots of the 1960s, nor of the potential they offered for television spectacle. Little did we know at the time of the first SABC (South African Broadcasting Corporation) television broadcast on January 5, 1976, that all that sparkling new equipment would provide prime time slots for rioting young blacks. The National Party government seemed blissfully unaware of the global market for footage of riots that had been created by the disturbances in America.
The church and the riots
The instigating role of the Anglican Church in the riots is well established but not well known. Since the early 19th century, the English churches in South Africa have been hostile to the local white population, especially the Afrikaners, whom they looked down on as bumpkins. This hostility increased during what the British call the Boers Wars of the late 19th century.
In 1940, the Anglican Church sent a young priest to South Africa named Trevor Huddleston. He was a radical socialist with Third-World, anti-white sympathies. He was also an outspoken foe of apartheid, and taught blacks Marxism of a kind that was an early form of “liberation theology.” Nelson Mandela said of him: “No white person has done more for South Africa than Trevor Huddleston.”
By 1976, many of the black teachers and principals in Soweto, the black township associated with Johannesburg, had been educated in the British-controlled church education system. Some were also trained at the new universities set up in the tribal homelands, where they imbibed American black nationalism and learned about Afro-Marxist movements such as Frelimo (Mozambique Liberation Front), SWAPO (South West Africa People’s Organization), the MPLA (Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola) and Robert Mugabe’s ZANU (Zimbabwe African National Union). Many of these movements were backed by China and the Soviet Union.
In the months before the riots, the Anglican and other English churches held meetings with Soweto school teachers and students. It is the students–the equivalent of American high schoolers–who are now the mythic heroes of the “uprising,” and they are commonly referred to as “children.” They are why the national holiday is called “Youth Day.” In fact, many of the student leaders were in their twenties, either because they had been held back or because they tended cattle or goats during what would have been their primary-school years.
The churches also helped print pamphlets arguing against the use of Afrikaans in schools, and they provided transportation for demonstrators.
The current view of the cause of the “uprising” was a chauvinistic desire of the South African regime to stop teaching school in English and instead impose the language of apartheid on backs. In fact, Afrikaans was to be introduced in parallel with English, with the two languages used in equal proportions for teaching different subjects. The reason was simple: There were two official, commonly spoken languages in South Africa, and bilingualism was the best preparation for a student to take a job in either language environment.
The government also tried to encourage so-called mother-tongue African-language education in black schools, especially during the early years. The more radical blacks were opposed to this as they thought it emphasized tribalism and division among blacks who should all share a common, racial nationalism.
In white schools, either English or Afrikaans was used as a medium of instruction, with the majority of parents preferring to send their children to Afrikaans schools. However, both English and Afrikaans were compulsory subjects, with English-speakers having to study English at a more advanced level and Afrikaans at a lower level, and the reverse at Afrikaans schools. In the last two years at Afrikaans schools, students read Shakespeare, so most whites were to some degree bilingual and exposed to each other’s languages.
In most rural parts of South Africa, Afrikaans was the lingua franca, and many blacks used it to communicate across tribal lines. Indeed, surveys taken before the riots found that only a tiny percentage of black parents showed any opposition to Afrikaans. However, once the riots broke out and the cause was said to be opposition to Afrikaans, few blacks were willing to speak in its favor.
On June 16, 1976, students left school to demonstrate. Many joined the demonstrations without even knowing their purpose; they were happy for an excuse to skip school. Dan Muller, one of the policemen who first met and tried to manage the demonstrators writes this:
Of the more than 300 children we questioned, not one had any idea what the march was about. They had simply been told to be there. The march was peaceful until four o’clock when drunken adults were transported there in Putco buses [Putco is the name of a private busing company in South Africa]. Of the five black schools [from which demonstrators came] only two had Afrikaans as a subject and the language of instruction in all five was English.
Demonstrators surrounded a group of police officers, started throwing rocks, and killed a police dog. The police panicked, and fired on the demonstrators. The result was what became the iconic image of the riots: photographer Sam Nzima’s picture of a dying 13-year-old Hector Pieterson being carried away from the riot with his sister running beside him. This image immediately became the symbol of the “uprising.”
There are many ironies here, not least that although Hector’s death has become a permanent accusation of white racism, the officer who shot him was black. Likewise, young Hector, who became a heroic figure of “black resistance,” did not consider himself black but “coloured” or mixed-race. His parents changed their African-sounding name of Pitso to the Scandinavian-sounding Pieterson to distance themselves from pure-blooded blacks. This distinction is not well understood by Americans, who generally make no distinction between light- and dark-skinned blacks, but the Pieterson family identified more with the “white oppressors” than with the black rioters.
There is another irony. On June 16 of this year, the liberal Johannesburg daily Beeld published an interview with the now 82-year-old photographer. Mr. Nzima referred to another death he witnessed that day, which happened before Hector Pieterson was shot:
Only one policeman remained. The children broke all the windows of his vehicle and dragged him from it. They cut his throat as if he were a goat and set him alight. All of that I photographed with my Pentax camera.
These photographs have never been published.
The riots that were supposed to be about the language of school instruction soon degenerated into school arson and the looting of bars and liquor stores. As riots spread across the country, blacks burned literally hundreds of schools and the violence led to more than 100 deaths. This wanton destruction, when it is mentioned at all, is now described as a regrettable but understandable reaction to the hated language of apartheid.
Obed Kunene, the black editor of the Zulu newspaper Ilanga said at the time:
Blacks do not destroy facilities. They destroy symbols of the entire system devised by Whites for them . . . .When riots come . . . all the institutions and services that bear the stamp of White authority become prime targets . . . . [Quoted by J.C. Steyn in his 1980 book, Tuiste in eie taal (At home in one’s own language), p. 298.]
The looting has also been given a retrospective political purpose. The local sale of alcohol was, in fact, controlled by the government to encourage consumption of “Bantu beer,” which was less alcoholic than ordinary beer, and to collect taxes used to fund black development. Needless to say, the rioters drank their loot rather than destroy it as an act of protest. Blacks have looted bars and liquor stores countless times since ANC rule began in 1994.
And, of course, the newly functioning SABC got dramatic footage of crowds, fires, and desperate policemen, which circled the globe and stoked up hostility to the apartheid regime.
One aspect of the rioting that has faded into obscurity is, in some respects, the most important: the savage killing of Dr. Melville Edelstein. He was a social worker who had devoted his life to helping blacks. Although the apartheid regime is today denounced as practically “Nazi,” it had put a Jewish man in charge of welfare in Soweto. His PhD thesis was called “What Young Africans Think.”
The 57-year-old Edelstein could easily have survived the riot; he got word of the violence and drove away. However, he decided to turn back and make sure a young white social worker, Pierrette Jacques, was safe. She was warned in time and had escaped, but Edelstein was cornered by a black mob and murdered. His killers then hung a sign around his neck saying, “Beware, Afrikaans is the most dangerous drug for our future.”
In a recent TV documentary on Edelstein’s life, a lawyer close to the South African Communist Party, George Bizos, explains that if the rioters “had known who Edelstein was, they would not have killed him.” But do rioters pause to consider whom they are killing? Mr. Bizos continues:
The crowd returning from being witnesses to a cold-blooded murder of one their number, . . . they didn’t know that he was really their friend rather than their enemy, and this is what happens when unjustified violence is used, particularly by the police.
And so we must blame the police for Edelstein’s death. It is surprising that this documentary was even made. The tedious propaganda exercises South Africa goes through every June 16 rarely mention him. At the Hector Pieterson Memorial site in Soweto–now advertised as a “political tourist attraction”–his name is not included among the eight people who died that day.
Two black youths were charged with Edelstein’s murder, but were acquitted for lack of evidence and because their confessions were allegedly obtained under duress. No one has ever been punished for the killing.
Edelstein’s widow and children have tried to portray him as an “anti-apartheid activist,” even though he worked for the West-Rand Bantu Administration Board, the unit that governed blacks in Soweto. Edelstein’s daughter, Janet Goldblatt, now works in Soweto herself, “serving the black community” just as her father did. She has also met and “embraced” one Murphy Morobi, who was reportedly part of the mob that killed her father.
Her story is eerily reminiscent of that of the Biehl family. The young American Amy Biehl was another famous benefactor killed by those she served. She had gone to South Africa to do volunteer work in Gugulethu, a black township near Cape Town. On August 25, 1993, after she had given a black friend a ride to the township, she was surrounded by blacks who shouted “Kill the Boer” as they stabbed and stoned her. At the trial, according to an account by Rex van Schalkwyk, “Supporters of the three men accused of murdering [her] . . . burst out laughing in the public gallery of the Supreme Court . . . when a witness told how the battered woman groaned in pain.”
Amy Biehl’s murderers were amnestied by the so-called Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1998. Amy’s parents, Peter and Linda Biehl, set up a foundation in South Africa to provide work and uplift for blacks, including the four who killed their daughter. In a touching scene, they publicly hugged Amy’s murderers.
Killing benefactors goes back a long way in South Africa. At the time of the Voortrekker pioneers in the 1850s, a white couple adopted and reared a black orphan. When he grew to manhood he killed them.
There is also the grisly case of the Irish Dominican nun Elsie Quinlan, who came to South Africa to work as a doctor among the Xhosa in the city of East London. On November 9, 1952, a riot broke out after an ANC meeting. Quinlan was taking food to her patients when her car was stopped by a crowd that had already beaten to death a white insurance salesman, B.J. Vorster. “Here is a white woman,” shouted a black woman. “Let’s kill her.”
The crowd smashed the windshield and started beating Quinlan with bricks. They stabbed her with a kitchen knife and then set her alight. Several people carved off and ate chunks of her charred flesh. That same day, the mob killed nine people and burned down several church buildings, including a training college for blacks.
And here we have what may be the most lasting legacy of the Soweto and other black riots: arson and destruction. In an interview published this year, Edelstein’s daughter Janet Goldblatt said:
My father tried to live in a positive paradigm. What for him would be upsetting is the negativity of people. It brings anger. There is still rioting and madness. Libraries being burnt down would have upset him as it has most of us.
She is right. There is still rioting and madness and libraries being burned down. Whether South Africa has a white or a black government, or whether Afrikaans, English or any other language is used at school, there are riots and arson. Currently, there are approximately 15 black protests or riots every day. In the first five months of this year, blacks set fire to no fewer than 24 schools in the Vuwani district of Limpopo province. Over the last few days there have been reports that more schools have been set alight in the same district, bringing the total number of Vuwani schools burnt down or damaged to 29 for the year so far.
Nor are universities exempt. According to official figures, almost half a billion rand ($30 million) of damage has been done at campuses over the past year alone during the so-called “student protests” I described in a previous article for American Renaissance.
In a recent report by the Institute for Security Studies entitled “At the Heart of Discontent,” researcher Lizette Lancaster found that from 2013 to 2015 a staggering 53 percent of protests in South Africa involved some form of “public violence,” and that 9 percent of protests were related to education. South African blacks seem doomed to re-enact the nihilistic rioting and burning of schools, seemingly forever, while white liberals heap praise on them for doing so.
There is a more sobering lesson. More than anything, the Soweto riots and their successors are a revolt against the white man’s kindness and sense of duty in providing housing, education, medicine, and social services to a less developed population. The generation that rioted in 1976 was the first to enjoy more or less universal education under Afrikaner rule. Edelstein, along with the many Afrikaner social workers under him, could be seen as a representative of government care and beneficence, offered to a population that contributed little or no taxes to services and to the buildings they were so eager to burn down.
To the immense frustration of the whites who built this country, South Africa today is in something of a “permanent riot.” Europe and North America are hovering on the brink of chaos, as they try to share their civilization with aliens. The West would do well to reread Rudyard Kipling’s “The White Man’s Burden,” written at a time when it was more common to speak the truth:
Take up the White Man’s burden
And reap his old reward:
The blame of those ye better
The hate of those ye guard–
I will conclude with one more legacy of the Soweto riots. The famous photo of Hector Pieterson and television footage of angry blacks went around the world. It brought renewed sympathy and overseas funding for the largely moribund South African Communist Party and its band of “token blacks” known as the ANC. It could be said that it was television that brought them back to life.
Today the black-run SABC shows more wisdom than its white predecessor did. It no longer broadcasts riots and school arson. As a top official explains, “when they see cameras, they burn.”