Soweto uprising – 40 years on: the role of Wits students

  By Martin Plaut, Senior Research Fellow, ICWS

Remember Soweto poster

It is hard to believe, but it is 40 years since the pupils of Soweto confronted the apartheid state. It was the beginning of the end of white rule in South Africa. But the children – many of them very young – paid a terrible price.

In the first day alone around 200 were shot down by the police.

This is the iconic image of that day: 16 June 1976: the death of Hector Peterson, taken by Sam Nzima.

Hector Pieterson

That day is etched on my mind, since I was a student at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) when it took place. As the news filtered through we painted the exterior wall of the Student’s Union black – then in white painted up the terrible death toll.

As the each new figure came through, we crossed out the old, and scrawled up the new.

Then we went on to Jan Smuts Avenue on the edge of the campus and held a poster protest. Finally, when that was clearly not enough, we marched into town.

This blog is about that march and the events that followed. But I would like to stress that even though we protested it was the black students in Soweto who were paying the real price. The police – although attacking us – were never going to kill white students.

Wits Student posters on march

We crossed the railway bridge into Johannesburg’s central business district and almost immediately hundreds, then thousands of black men and women joined us. Suddenly we were caught up in events over which we had little control.

Black woman with fist salute

We marched through town, and back to the university. It was the most extraordinary, exhilarating experience. You could amost taste freedom, despite the terrible events going on just a few miles away.

Wits protest joined by black workers

 

We marched three times – if I remember correctly. But the march was not unchallenged.

The police broke up the march on the bridge into town.

Wits Student Thugs Attack

Then we were assaulted by Afrikaans students from the nearby technical college. You can see me top left trying to avoid a blow!

MP about to be hit Wits March

The events in Soweto set the country alight. Never again would white rule go unchallenged.

I went down to the University of Cape Town and spoke at a rally there.

MP speaking UCT Soweto

UCT students left the campus protest and marched in solidarity with their fellow students, who were by this time fighting the police in Cape Town’s townships.

Here is the demonstration prior to the march.

Soweto solidarity UCT

We were arrested and jailed for a night – a small price to pay! Eighteen years later the sacrifice of all those young men and women in the townships finally paid off.

South Africa was free and could chart its future without the scourge of apartheid.

Hear Martin Plaut speak of his experiences below:

 

This article was originally posted on Martin Plaut’s blog, which can be found here. The ICwS is holding an event at the UCL Institute of Education on 16th June to mark the 40th anniversary of the Soweto Uprising. More information can be found here

One thought on “Soweto uprising – 40 years on: the role of Wits students

  1. I was on that march and some of us about 30-40 (if my memory serves me correctly) were arrested and taken to John Foster Square. Half of us were charged. I was charged on a number of minor counts, one was something like “blocking a public place”. The other half were let off with no conviction.

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