Behind the lens on June 16

The students of June 16 1976 were in good spirits when they embarked on their protest against the use of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction at their schools.
The students of June 16 1976 were in good spirits when they embarked on their protest against the use of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction at their schools.
Image: Mike Mzileni, courtesy Baileys Archives

The death of photographer Sam Nzima last month was a reminder of the important role played by journalists and photographers during the Struggle and the sacrifice many of them made in their quest to bring us the news. Sunday World talks to four journalists who covered the protest on the day that changed our political landscape.

Mike Mzileni (76):

Mzileni was a 24-year-old photographer at Drum and was on his way to work from his home in Dube when he met up with students carrying placards and his news nose kicked in. Driving a white VW Beetle, he followed the children at they made their way to Orlando Stadium but was soon warned that his car may be mistaken for a police car. He quickly abandoned it and followed them on foot.

He recalls that the students were a militant crowd, shouting black consciousness slogans.

Mzileni recalls that his editor, Stan Motjuwadi, had already written an article a few weeks before about the anger of black pupils being forced to be taught in Afrikaans. He says no one, not even the student leaders themselves, had anticipated what would happen that day.

"The protest was not organised by any political party and even when the students held their meeting that previous Sunday, where Tsietsi Mashinini was chosen to lead the march, no one knew about it except for the students," Mzileni said.

"What we saw that Wednesday was a first of its kind. Students from Orlando West Junior Secondary, Orlando West High, Naledi High and Morris Isaacson were the most conscientised. With students like Mashinini, you will recall that slain leader Onkgopotse Tiro was responsible for teaching them about our Struggle and history."

On that historic day, Mzileni took the iconic image of the children marching towards the stadium with one placard screaming "To hell with Afrikaans".

The image now graces the Hector Pieterson Museum and the June 16 Museum at Morris Isaacson.

Mzileni had to climb a boulder to get an aerial shot of the picture.

Dan Makata(76):

As chief photographer for The World and Weekend World, Dan Makata, whose surname was then Tleketle, had the duty to edit pictures that went into the two papers.

Thinking back to the iconic Sam Nzima image capturing Mbuyisa Makhubu carrying a young Hector Pieterson, he recalls how both he and the late veteran photographer Alf Khumalo also had similar pictures. But, Nzima's image was the best they had to lead the paper that Thursday due to its intensity.

"He had captured Mbuyisa's grimace perfectly and the worry in his sister Antoinette's face."

According to Makata, management initially rejected the picture fearing it would cause further unrest, but editor Percy Qoboza fought for it to be published.

Earlier on, Makata had been covering the march with Nzima and late veteran journalist Sophie Tema. The team was responsible for taking a dying Pieterson to Doctor Nthato Motlana's surgery after he was shot.

"We published the picture in all the Argus newspapers, including Cape Argus, Swazi Times, Rhodesian Herald, The Star, Sunday Tribune and Ilanga la se Natal, and that picture changed the course of our history."

Len Khumalo (79):

After he heard that Soweto was burning, photographer Len Khumalo rushed to the township to check on his sister, who lived in Mofolo at the time. Unfortunately, he was captured by a mob of students who were wary of him taking their pictures.

"They may have thought that I was with the other side [the police]," he said.

Within a few minutes, his expensive R200 camera equipment that was only a few days old and which took him two months to save for on his R150-a-month salary, was destroyed.

After they beat him up, Khumalo was asked to smash windows of a municipal office to pledge his support, but was later given a few pints of beer after the mob looted and burnt down a nearby bottle store. Thankfully for him, he was able to slip away from the mob under cover of darkness. It was only the next day, on his way to work at The Post, that he saw the death and destruction of the June 16 chaos.

He first stumbled upon four charred bodies near a delivery van that was torched near White City.

"They were burnt so badly all I could see were skeletons," he recalled.

Opposite Regina Mundi church, four bodies that were shot were piled on a street corner. Khumalo was traumatised when he saw that one of them was a colleague, a clerk he could only remember as Jerry. He stole a shot of the bodies using his old camera and smuggled the image to a colleague at The Sunday Times to be published.

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