How the brutality of the apartheid government changed Khulu Radebe

Throwing stones

INTRODUCTION:  Witnessing the brutality of the apartheid government’s peri-urban police toward parents in the community spurred Khulu Radebe and his classmates to meet at nights and plan what they could do to confront the oppression they witnessed on a daily basis. Youth from Alexandra played a significant, but little-known, role in helping to plan what later became known as the Soweto Uprising that began on June 16, 1976.  In Alexandra Radebe threw the first rock against a police car on June 18 during a time that shattered the relative calm the regime had been able to impose following the lifetime imprisonment of Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu and the other Rivonia Trialists in 1964.  

TEXT:  During our childhood in Alexandra, our parents would be woken up by the peri-urban police between 3 am and 4 am every morning from Monday to Friday. ‘Maak oop die fokken deur!’ the young Afrikaner boys would yell while violently kicking open the house door and demanding to see passes and permits.

Our parents needed to have both a pass and a permit. The permit showed the police who was eligible to sleep in the house. The pass was a different type of permit for people working in town. It meant that they had the right to be in Johannesburg, at least while they continued to work… 

You would have to pay a fine of R90 if you were arrested. Those who didn’t have the money would be sent to a farm to plant or dig up potatoes by hand for 90 days. People were given one rand per day for their labour on the farm, hence the 90 days.

A lot of parents would run away naked or skimpily clothed because their papers were not in order. They would flee to an area near Alex called Marlboro, which in those days we called Emjeri. It was an area that had been cultivated by a group of Portuguese farmers before being abandoned. One of the decaying houses had an underground prison with chains for slaves.

You would see a lot of parents coming back from hiding in Emjeri at around 6 am. Other parents would stay until 7 am at the latest, after which even those working close by had to move on if they didn’t want to be late for work. Neighbours would lend them clothes to cover themselves and try to lessen their humiliation.

Coming across parents running naked in the streets as we were making our way to school or the local shops disturbed us. Their abuse violated the necessary sense of respect for adults that is fostered in children from all South African cultures, including, ironically, the Afrikaner one. Seeing your parent, or the parent of a next-door neighbour, naked on the street in fear of being arrested was simply not right. How do you relate to any parent you have seen naked?

The topic would come up every time we met at street corners. In 1974 and 1975 we took a decision within a growing sense of our power as young people: ‘This is not right,’ we said. ‘If we don’t fight against this thing, it will never stop.’

We started by organising ourselves in our own area. Another youth group from 18th or 19th Avenue did the same. That is how the core of our growing group started on its mission to oppose the apartheid state. When the uprising happened in 1976, we were already fully committed and ready. After 1976, we escalated our resistance…

As the middle of June came around in 1976, we said, ‘Let’s go and march and hand in a memorandum stating that we are not comfortable with writing mathematics in Afrikaans without being prepared for it.’

The purpose of our march, which was to begin in Orlando, Soweto, was to make a strong statement about our memorandum and petition. We planned to do this by gathering as many people as possible from the various schools in that area. The peaceful march was supposed to end at Orlando Stadium. We were on our way there when we were suddenly given short notice to disperse, quickly followed by the hullabaloo of the effects first of teargas, then of live bullets. When we heard that students had been injured and killed, we responded by burning cars and township administration offices in Alexandra.

Hastings Ndlovu was the first student to be shot dead, before Hector Pieterson. But the main issue was not who was shot that day; it was that a student march had taken place to hand in a petition concerning student rights.

On 17 June, a select group met at the back of Alexandra Stadium at about 5 pm to organise the response we would make the following day. Students were dressed as if they were going to soccer practice. That was when people were given tasks and responsibilities: who was going to do what, who was going to give the speech.

‘This is how it’s going to be tomorrow,’ we decided. ‘Take all your books and pretend that you’re going to school. We all go to school and we disrupt the classes. If we don’t go to class, we won’t have the same impact.’

The township was already organised and there was a great deal of tension around. Alex students doing their secondary schooling in Soweto, and students from the Shangani-language Bovet Higher Primary School that stood on the grounds of the Swiss Mission church, were involved. Groups from Pholosho Senior Primary, Gordon Higher Primary, Skeen Primary and the Lutheran School were present, too. The last group was from the coloured school at the corner of John Brand and 3rd Avenue. All those schools came together to present the memorandum that had not been handed over because the police had started shooting.

The morning of 18 June was very cold. We set off, with Toto Skhosana and Japie Vilankulu leading us. Japie started chanting: ‘Are we afraid of them?’, after which Toto yelled: ‘Are we afraid?

‘No!’ the marchers responded.

We chanted for a while longer before singing the sombre song ‘Senzeni na?’ (‘What have we done?’). We did not care if we died.

As we continued to sing and march, we stopped at the Casino flat on 4th Avenue. Japie stood on the stoep, again asking: ‘Are we afraid of them?’

‘No, we are not afraid!’ came our answer.

The whole march couldn’t get to all those schools, so a predetermined group broke away at 6th Avenue to fetch the students from Gordon. Another breakaway group went to Skeen Higher Primary. The students at the coloured school who were supposed to join in the march remained stuck in the school because their headmaster refused to let them out.

We regrouped at the corner of 4th Avenue. There was no evidence of a police response. All was well. At that moment, though, a notorious black policeman named Sibeko who was known for harassing our parents drove through in a Datsun van painted in that greenish-brownish military colour. He was pulled out of the vehicle, kicked and stabbed. I don’t know whether he was killed.

We turned right towards the Putco bus rank at 1st Avenue. Two white policemen were reporting for duty. When they saw the crowd of students, they drove on as if nothing was happening.

I caught sight of a police Valiant. Furious and wanting revenge for the events of June 16, I threw a stone that landed in the middle of the windscreen and broke it. The car sped away towards the police station. That was the first time a police car had been stoned, and the other students gained strength from that gesture. We marched down towards the coloured school because we needed those students to join the march.

The shooting began on 3rd Avenue. We dispersed and met at the Lutheran church at 7th Avenue that became the venue for Sub A and Sub B education. I remember that a student called Ntwaza lost the school bell for Alexandra Secondary when he threw it down in the chaos.

As we hid there, we started talking about a beer hall down the road. In those days, beer halls were symbols of oppression to many people, especially for those who were politically aware. ‘Let’s go and burn it,’ we yelled. A lot of people went there, broke in and started looting. Some people reversed a bus into the venue, removed the safe and went after the beer in a big way. The march had turned from a student march into something else.

We next moved on to 12th Avenue, where some people broke into the welfare office next to the Jersey Joe Boxing Club and started giving out blankets. Some adults among the crowd covered themselves in the blankets and rolled on the ground as if they were kids playing. Meanwhile, from 12th to 8th avenues on Selborne Street there was suddenly a fierce battle with the police, who started to shoot without warning. I ran away as soon as this happened. ‘I’ve played my role, let me go back home,’ I told myself.

Excerpt from Comrade King by Khulu Radebe and Jeff Kelly Lowenstein, all rights reserved. Comrade King is published by Jacana Media.  The launch event will be streamed live on Tuesday, August 15 at 1800 SAST.  The e-book can be purchased by going to: Amazon.   

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