New Internationalist

Whirlwind Before the Storm

November 1980

by Alan Brooks and Jeremy Brickhill

Photo: International Defence and Aid Fund
Photo: International Defence and Aid Fund

International Defence and Aid Fund
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June 76’ has become far more than a recognisable phrase labelling the revolt by Soweto school children against Bantu Education. ‘June 76’ is now a rallying-call for South African youth in their opposi­tion to apartheid, as well as a touchstone of success for any internal protest. This soon became clear in the months after ‘June 76’ - and has been strikingly demonstrated in the current unrest in black schools in South Africa, most of it taking place outside the areas involved in 1976.

It is thus timely that a new study of ‘June 76’ has been published. Brooks and Brickhill take their title from the words of the premier, Vorster, who warned his fellow whites at the end of that cataclysmic year that the storm had not yet struck -‘we are only experiencing the whirlwinds before it,’ he said. Now that his words are being shown to be correct - and that the liberation struggle has indeed established itself inside South Africa - it is useful to trace the origins of the Soweto revolt and to see how, in the words of one pupil, ‘when we say Bantu Education we mean the whole structure’. The 1976 revolt was an attack on the fundamentals of apartheid.

The authors show the links between Soweto and its antecedents, especially Sharpeville in 1960 (which was about the time that most of the Soweto combatants were born). It is worth being reminded that police repression in 1976 was far worse even that at Sharpeville: many more were killed in Soweto, and most of those killed were children. Brooks and Brickhill make the point: ‘In 1976 this generation was plunged into struggle literally overnight, in conditions in which experience gained over decades by the previous generation was learnt in weeks, even days.’

Whirlwind has one advantage over previous studies of the Soweto events (two deserve repeated mention: John Kane-Berman’s Soweto, black revolt, white reaction, Ravan Press, Johannes­burg, 1978, and Baruch Hirson’s Year of Fire, Year of Ash, Zed Press, London, 1979): it was prepared more recently and, in addition to the benefit of hindsight, is able to draw on the personal experiences of many of those who actually took part in the events in Soweto (and who joined the youthful exodus into exile and training for re-involvement), as well as testimony at trials which followed the uprising.

Whirlwindhas 16 pages of photographs, plus a useful chronology of events from June to December. Its final ‘testimony of torture’ gives a chilling reminder of why South African school children today, intent on trying to establish their rights, have to be tough:

They took me to an interrogation room. They told me to take my clothes off… Then they fastened me to the chair by my wrists. Then they put some­thing on my head, like a cap. Then they came with a wet cloth and put it inside my mouth. Then I felt electric shocks going through my body. After five min­utes the shocks stopped and they asked me if I would tell them the truth. I said I would tell them the truth. Then the shocks started again.

Hugh Lewin

This column was published in the November 1980 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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This article was originally published in issue 093

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