16 June 1976

I was fifteen, but I remember the events of 16 June 1976 like it was last week. Black kids rose against the Apartheid state in South Africa, and refused Afrikaans as a medium of instruction in schools. They stamped their collective foot and said “No!” And their cry shook the world. Police opened fire and the first kid to go down was Hector Pieterson. I know you’ve seen the now famous picture of his limp body in the hands of Mbuyisa Makhubo, his sister running alongside them.

“I saw that he was bad, but I thought that he was just wounded, you know,” remembers Hector’s sister, Antoinette Sithole. [source]

There were to be many victims that day. Hector’s photo was plastered on the conscience of the world (though few did anything about it), but there weren’t enough photographers to shoot take pictures of the other victims. Hastings Ndlovu was another such victim, and it is said he may have even died before Hector. Here’s the story of his death.

Klein was dumbstruck as to how a school child, in the middle of the morning, was being admitted to Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital with gunshot wounds, and questions raced through his mind.

“Children with bullet wounds?” he wondered. “But how? And by whom? A robbery? By school kids? In the middle of the day? Where would the guns come from? Black South Africans are prohibited from owning guns.”

The answer came: “They were shot by the police.”

Klein says a quick survey in the casualty ward revealed that all except one child were shot above the waist: in other words, the police had shot to kill. Then his old high school friend and a neurosurgeon, Dr Risik Gopal, arrived and checked Hastings’ condition.

Gopal confirmed what Klein had suspected: no one could survive such an injury. And indeed, a “short time later, Hastings was dead”, having been in a coma from the moment he was shot, Klein says.

Klein worked in Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital for several years, and had been warned that it would be a “baptism in blood” – particularly on Friday nights. But after years of handling “grisly injuries” from assaults using a range of weapons, he thought “nothing could penetrate the emotional barriers I had learned to erect”.

Not that day.

The sight of “uniformed children riddled with bullets”, accompanied by their “terminal breaths”, left Klein feeling helpless and hopeless, and he could only watch in despair as life ebbed from the “fragile frame” of Ndlovu.

The white hospital administrator walked into the ward and Klein told him to expect trouble that night in Soweto. The administrator replied: “Oh, no, by tonight everything will have blown over.”

Klein, a coloured doctor who under apartheid ethos had no authority to shout at a white person, couldn’t contain himself. He yelled: “In Soweto, you do not shoot children and get away with it. There is going to be shit!” He walked away with tears in his eyes.

Klein had to break the news of Ndlovu’s death to the boy’s friends and relatives, a difficult task not made easier by repeating the news to other relatives of dead children. “I remember the looks of disbelief, the anguish, the tears. And I remember my own grief welling up afresh each time I delivered the grim news.”

Gopal, now the chief neurosurgeon at the hospital, said they stood at the window and watched police shooting children. Some of the staff members saw their own children being brought in with gunshot wounds. “There was a lot of emotion on the day. It was just chaos,” he says.

By late afternoon the government had prohibited blacks from assembling in groups larger than three. Workers, when they disembarked from trains and taxis, got together before walking home, wondering what was happening, unaware of the ruling.

Police opened fire on them, expecting them to know about the prohibition, and they arrived at hospital asking innocently why the police were shooting at them.

Others arrived at hospital with strange wounds, says Klein: small entrance holes in their upper bodies, with larger exit wounds lower down. One man said: “We were sitting in our kitchen, having dinner, when bullets came in through the roof and hit us.” Police were firing from helicopters overhead. [source]

The purpose of this post is of course to remember these children’s sacrifice. I remember the personal friends I made after refugees started flowing into Lesotho from all over South Africa. I remember how we would gather round and sing freedom songs in the evenings, how knowing them made us better politicians at that young age (I was fifteen). I remember how we’d listen to Radio Freedom being broadcast from Tanzania by the African National Congress. I remember how the sound sucked because the Apartheid government was doing its best to kill the signal.

I remember.

The other purpose of this post is to warn us about being inactive in the face of grave injustices. After 1976 and what it brought to South Africa, you’d think the world would do something. You’d be wrong. You think the world might do something for Darfur today? Wrong again. Mention a calamity in the world and ask yourself if the world might intervene, and you’d be wrong to think it would. But America did intervene in Iraq (not in Darfur). Find the error. Did America intervene in South Africa with…

  1. the mere existence of Apartheid
  2. laws such as The Immorality Act of 1950, which stated that no one could make love to anyone outside of his or her race
  3. Nelson Mandela and many other leaders in prison
  4. the Sharpeville Massacre of 1960
  5. the Soweto uprisings of 1976
  6. the fact that more than 3 million blacks were forcibly removed from their homes and resettled in black ‘homelands‘.
  7. the gruesome killing of Steve Biko in 1977
  8. the killing of Ruth First, wife of Joe Slovo, by means of a parcel bomb
  9. and many other injustices carried out against a whole people because of the activity of melanocytes in their skin

So, how did the world react? How did the big Occidental powers react? This is part of what happened: “[Chester] Crocker attracted the attention of the Reagan transition team with an article he wrote in the winter 1980/81 edition of the Foreign Affairs journal. In the article, Crocker was highly critical of the outgoing Carter administration for its apparent hostility to the white minority government in South Africa, by acquiescing in the United Nations Security Council’s imposition of a mandatory arms embargo (UNSCR 418/77) and the UN’s demand for the end of South Africa’s illegal occupation of Namibia (UNSCR 435/78). [source]” That’s what happened. The Reagan administration went on to apply and implement its policy of Constructive Engagement.

Let us remember this day with a particular thought for those who died; let us remember it also with a particular thought at preventing it from happening in the future now. So, watchu gon’ do?

Nkosi, sikelel’i Afrika