revolution of 76

Themba Molefe

Themba Molefe

The first police gunshot rang out on June 16 1976 straight into the crowd, without warning.

Other policemen took up the signal and more shots were fired. A uniformed pupil fell. Dead. It was 13-year-old Hector Pieterson.

The World newspaper photographer Sam Nzima captured the moment as another youth, Mbuyisa Makhubo, ran with Hector's limp body to a clinic.

Hector's hysterical sister, Antoinette, ran beside Mbuyisa. The world saw that haunting image and again condemned the National Party regime.

The youth revolution had begun.

Later prominent Soweto doctor and activist Aaron Matlhare would say: "These children will spit on our graves one day."

The apartheid rulers were shocked into unleashing more violence on youths armed only with stones and Molotov cocktails.

During the unrest that followed bottle-stores and beer halls were looted and the alcohol "donated" to shebeens.

The reason for looting the bottle-stores, the pupils said, was that they were situated next to railway stations and tempted their fathers to spend their hard-earned money on payday.

To date those gymslip and short-pant pioneers are known as the Class of 76.

It was because of them that the march to freedom became even more urgent.

Led by the Soweto Students' Representative Council (SSRC), it was largely because of the bravery of those youths that, though reluctantly, apartheid legislation began to be dismantled.

It started with the Urban Bantu Councils Act that imposed unelected local councillors on the townships.

Under the leadership of Dan Sechaba Montsitsi the SSRC frog-marched councillors out of Soweto's municipal chambers and forced them to resign.

Now an ANC MP, Montsitsi was the third SSRC president after Khotso Seatlholo who succeeded Tsietsi Mashinini.

The Urban Bantu Councils Act was later replaced by the equally toothless Community Councils Act of 1977. The Bantu Education Act of 1953 was replaced by the Education and Training Act in 1977.

While these were a victory for the people's struggle, the overall design of apartheid remained and the struggle continued.

Those SSRC leaders who, as parents today, still bear the torch of South Africa's youth grappling with the social and economic struggles post-1994.

They are the late Mashinini, who died in exile.

Seatlholo skipped the country but always slipped back in to give former journalist Thami Mazwai exclusive interviews. He was later arrested and spent time on Robben Island. He died in poverty.

Murphy Morobe became head of communications in the office of President Thabo Mbeki and is now chief executive of Kagiso Media.

Seth Mazibuko and Thabo Ndabeni head the June 16 Foundation. Trofomo Sono is in the army.

Sibongile Mthembu Mkhabela, the only girl in the subsequent SSRC 11 trial, now heads the Mandela Children's Fund.

Jefferson Lengane returned from exile and joined City Press as a journalist. He died a few years later in a car crash.

Tebogo Mgomezulu and Kennedy Mogami are also dead. Before his death Mogami was attacked by hijackers who shot him in the knee and his leg was amputated.