Soweto: How to start a revolution

Gonzo Meets the Press #11 June 16, 2011

This is a day that will never be forgotten in South Africa: the police shooting of student protesters in the black townships 35 years ago that
eventually brought down the apartheid government.

“Soweto” is a term the South African government gave
to the 26 “Southwestern townships” of Johannesburg  in 1963 — 26 square miles
of squalor which erupted into violence on June 16, 1976 – thirty-five years ago
It started that morning with 20 thousand Soweto students marching in
peaceful protests against the government’s order that Afrikaans, the language of
the oppressor, had to be used in secondary schools. But the police reacted as
only South African security forces could, ripping up placards and trying to stop
the march. The students threw stones, the police used teargas, then opened fire
with guns. One of the first to die from a police bullet was a 13-year-old
schoolboy, Hector Pieterson.
It was a shot that was heard around the world. I was the foreign editor of The Australian that day, and helped prepare the front
page with Mike Jenkinson, a former Wallaby, who played for Australia in South
Africa in 1963 and saw apartheid first-hand. Mike was no fan of the South
African government or its racist policies.
I still have a mat mold of the front page of The Australian from June 16, 1976 with the headline: Rioting spreads
in South Africa. It was before Twitter and Facebook and satellite television,
and we got the story via telex and phone calls to contacts in South Africa,
including one of Mike’s rugby mates on The Star in Johannesburg.
From that day forward, the apartheid government never stood a chance of survival, though
it wasn’t until April 27, 1994, that black South Africans celebrated their
freedom by voting in the first all-race  elections in the country’s history. The
headline in The Star that Wednesday was: Vote, the Beloved Country – a
paraphrase of the famous novel by Alan Paton, Cry the Beloved Country. The
queues of voters snaked around the nation, and such was the turnout, the polling
booths had to be opened the next day.
I was lucky enough to be in South Africa that week, helping to produce the Channel Nine Sunday program. But I’ll
never forget the role those brave students played that day in Soweto, with
unrest continuing on and off for years. The photograph of Hector Pieterson being
carried by a fellow student through the dusty streets of Soweto, with his
anguished sister beside them, became the symbol of the resistance movement, much
like another innocent 13-year-old boy, Hamza Ali al-Khateeb, who’s sparked
national protests in Syria after images of his badly beaten body were widely
circulated. His crime was to have attended a pro-democracy demonstration in his
small home town. The picture that accompanies this blog is of the South African
photographer, Sam Nzima, with the photo that captured a dying Hector Pieterson
and the brutality of apartheid. Nzima received national honours for his image on
April 27 this year, Freedom Day, the anniversary of the elections that brought
black and white together – at the polls at least.
A year after the Soweto uprising, I travelled around South Africa on a Pretoria-sponsored trip and wrote
a series of articles for The Australian. The highlights of the visit included an
interview with  Alan Paton in his beautiful home in the hills outside Durban,
and being smuggled into a migrant workers’ dormitory, a dark and dingy slab of
concrete in the black township of Guguletu outside Cape Town, where one of the
workers told me he was forced to live in these horrible conditions as a single
man, even though he was married. The evils of apartheid were hammered home to me
on that trip. As you can imagine, the South African embassy was not happy with
my reports.
Seventeen years later, I produced a cover story on South Africa
two months before the elections, with author Bryce Courtenay as our reporter,
and we wound up in Morris Isaacson High, one of the schools involved in the
Soweto protests. He was addressing a class of bright, optimistic teenagers when
a disturbance erupted outside. A group of students had discovered a suspected
rapist on the school grounds and were chasing him. Suddenly, the police arrived
and as I came from behind a school building, a policeman pointed his AK-47
directly at my testicles. Fortunately, my cameraman and his long lens that
resembled a rifle was not at my side, and I said: “I am a journalist.” I felt
more like a student about to get his testicles shot off.
We also talked to a leader of one of the Cape Coloured gangs in Cape Town, where young men made a
slitting gesture to their throats as we passed by in our van. The townships
still had a long way to go in 1994 … and still do in 2011.
Police are still not trusted in South Africa, with the rich resorting to private security
companies, and the poor turning to vigilante violence. The chief executive of
the respected South African Institute of Race Relations, John Kane-Berman, told
the Associated Press recently: “I think people have come to be very cynical
about police. Because they’ve seen corruption. Because they’ve seen
incompetence. There are repeated reports of police violence,
Thirty-five years on, Kane-Berman has some advice for the
citizens of South Africa, rich and poor, about how to make the police more
accountable, and townships more liveable: “The accountability comes from the
politicians, who must hold the police accountable. And the citizens must hold
the politicians accountable. If the citizens want to take active steps, they
have to use their votes.” Kane-Berman’s book on the Soweto uprising, South
Africa: The Method in the Madness, was one of the best accounts of the student
protests written in the late seventies. It’s still worth reading 35 years later
if you can get a copy. Mine is well-thumbed.
And finally, changing gears, a return to one of my favourite hates: Clichés. If you remember one of my previous
blogs in April, I mentioned some of the clichés that make me cringe: going forward; at the end of
the day; time will tell, etc.
I just came across an interesting piece in the British newspaper, The Independent, by John Rentoul,, who’s been waging a war against clichés for three years. And his paper has made a list of their top 100
banned words and phrases on The Independent website at
The paper’s banned list has reminded me of some of my other pet hates: At this moment in time; a week is
a long time in politics; “action” as a verb; iconic; paradigm shift, or anything
to do with a paradigm, to name just a few (which is now on my endangered list!).
You can add to the list, or create a new one based on Australian usage. Our
politicians continue to use clichés. On Wednesday on Fran Kelly’s Radio National
Breakfast program on the ABC, the NSW Opposition Leader, John Robertson, was
talking about the need for the Labor Party to “have policies that represent the
broader interests of the community and that’s what I’m focussed on, as we move
forward . . .” Nice try, John, but next time it might be better to appeal to the
community in the language they speak. Not many of them “move forward” in their
daily conversations.
Tom Krause is the supervising producer of Ten’s Meet the Press. His views are his own; always have been.

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