Soweto — the true story of 16 June 1976

Headline in the Natal Mercury on 17 June 1976

June 16, 1976 was a normal working day. It was cold and cloudless sunny winter weather. At the time I was working as a social-worker supervisor for the West Rand Development Council in Soweto and my office was in Diepkloof, which is located near Baragwanath Hospital. The hospital is located on the outskirts of Soweto. There were quite a few white social workers working in Soweto at the time, as well as many black social workers under our supervision. They had offices in their respective areas in and around Soweto. Our direct head was Dr. Melville Edelstein who was also the first person and the first white person to be killed in Soweto on June 16.

There were quite a few black social workers under my supervision whose offices were in Klipspruit, Chiawelo, Dlamini, Pimville, Senoane, Orlando East and Orlando West, Dube, Jabulani, Morocco and Jabavu.

As usual, I was at my office in Diepkloof at eight am on June 16, 1976. After completing some administrative tasks, I drove to Jabulani around 10:30 am to deliver a cheque to that office. At that point, everything was quiet and everyone seemed to be going about their business normally. Around 11 am on my way back to my office in Diepkloof I drove through Jabavu. I noticed black children in their school uniforms (black dresses, grey long pants and white shirts) running along the roads and in between the houses. They did not carry posters or give any indication why they were running. Further on to my right I saw a small brown sedan with four white officers inside who looked like South African policemen in their blue uniforms. They were travelling in the same direction as me,  at a high speed. The situation seemed tense. Fortunately I wore a black leather jacket that stood high against my neck, with black leather gloves and dark glasses. Because I was driving against the sun, no one from outside could see that I was a white woman. We were always instructed not to stop anywhere. I was thus able to reach my office in Diepkloof in one piece through the unruly mass of school children.

After returning to my office, I immediately went to the Chief Village Management’s office and told the manager what I had seen. After a short while he told me to leave the area immediately. He asked another Village Manager to escort me out of Soweto. It was 12 noon and I went to my apartment in Hillbrow. Because there were no cell phones at that time, I had no idea what was going on in Soweto. I didn’t have a TV or a radio either. From then on I was never able to return to my office in Diepkloof. I subsequently reported to the salary office in Eloff Street Extension, Johannesburg.

At around 5 pm, a Soweto work colleague visited me and told me Soweto was burning and that there was total chaos everywhere. On that same morning this colleague who worked in Zola was also instructed to leave the area by midday. Needless to say, he could never return again to his Zola office. The orderly system where white village managers had successfully managed the city of Soweto for many years ceased to exist from 16 June 1976. If a Soweto resident wanted to see a white official who had been replaced by a black village manager, a fee would have to be paid to the new black official just to make an appointment! This fee went into the official’s pocket.

During the riots, the Zola office was completely destroyed. Roving black mobs came with chains, surrounded the buildings and the large built-in safe was removed in the plundering. In addition the mob carried away all the roofing sheets and bricks. Some years later we drove past what had been a large, well-maintained edifice, with a vegetable market and parking, and now there was just grass. They had removed everything.

The formerly neat Diepkloof offices and the complex remained standing, but the library building was occupied by blacks who made it their headquarters. The buildings had deteriorated. Other town offices in Soweto were also looted and destroyed. Before the riots, rumours among whites working in Soweto had circulated that one day there would be trouble, but we had no indication when it was expected and what form it would take.

Arrogance and insubordination increased. One black social worker whose office was also in Diepkloof proved this point. She was never on time at 8 am, and sometimes only arrived at 10 am. Her black clients, mostly elderly people,  had been patiently waiting in the sun outside for hours for her arrival. I spoke to her on numerous occasions about her tardiness and discussed the matter with Dr. Edelstein. He did nothing about it. One morning she informed me she didn’t have a car like me, so could not arrive on time. At that point, she was on the same salary scale as me, while no tax was deducted from her annual bonus. Tax was deducted from my bonus. When I asked why she didn’t buy a car, she replied because she was black and nobody would sell her a car. I told her this was nonsense — she was playing the race card. But she turned around and left the office.

Dr. Melville Edelstein, with his family

Until his death, the 56-year old Dr. Edelstein had worked for eighteen years firstly in Soweto as a social worker/philanthropist and later as Chief Social Worker at the West Rand Development Council. He obtained his doctor’s degree from the left-liberal University of the Witwatersrand studying and researching the black youth in Soweto. He devoted his life to the upliftment of Soweto’s black youth and he could see nothing wrong with them. His daughter later said that “he loved the people of Soweto almost like he did his own family”. He attended his synagogue every morning before going to his office in Jabavu. On the morning of his death, he opened a project / program at the Protected Workshop in Orlando East. When he heard that there were problems at the Jabavu office,  he rushed back there despite warnings and pleas from myself and his other colleagues not to return. At his office he was met by the riotous young blacks who caught him under his desk. Despite the pleas of a black lady social worker not to attack Dr. Edelstein, they shouted at him “bleddy white k..…r, today you are going to die”.  They dragged him from under his desk and brutally killed him, smashing his head to a pulp and assaulting him with knives.

Jou bleddie wit k*****, vandag vrek jy. You bloody white k***** [n*****], today you are going to die [like an animal]

To my knowledge, he was known to these black thugs as he had worked with them daily for many years. In the media it was reported that had they known who he was, they would not have killed him. A note left behind on Dr. Edelstein’s body read  “preserving Afrikaans is the most dangerous drug for our future”. The black youth who killed him knew that he was not Afrikaans.

The “forcing students to learn Afrikaans” story is totally untrue. Afrikaans as a subject in the black schools was voluntary and no student was forced to take Afrikaans as a subject. White Afrikaans teachers in the black schools offered their respective subjects in English. All reports, interviews and so forth conducted by Village Managers or Social Workers or any other official in Soweto were conducted in English.

Because of the shortage of qualified black teachers, white women teachers were sent to the schools. Most of them were Afrikaans speakers, but all of course spoke English. Many of them were already teaching in English. The story that was spread around the world that Afrikaans was “forced” on black pupils is absolute nonsense. No one was forced to learn anything other than what they chose to learn. Afrikaans as a subject was listed with other subjects from which to choose. If you didn’t want to learn Afrikaans, no one forced you to do so.

It should be remembered that before the National Party came to power in 1948, there was no formal education system for blacks. So those in South Africa and overseas who complain about “Bantu education” should remember that for thousands of years while they lived in Africa, none of the black tribes created an education system. It was the whites who brought modern education to South Africa. Firstly it was the British and German missionaries who opened a few schools, then white farmers set up schools on their farms for the children of their workers, but until the Verwoerd government came to power, there was no formal education whatsoever for blacks. So those black critics who complain about Bantu education, we ask: what education system did you create for your own people? The answer is none.

Protests against education in Afrikaans broke out at seven Soweto schools. In six of them however no subjects were taught in Afrikaans. Before long, 20 000 students went on a rampage through the streets, burning, destroying, killing and looting. Other whites working in Soweto, including women, were surrounded and assaulted. One white official (J.N.B. Esterhuizen) was stopped in his car and hacked to death! Police detachments were sent in to restore order but achieved little. They were attacked by stone-throwing crowds which also set police dogs alight.

At one of the riot scenes, a large group surrounded and closed in on a few policemen. The police opened fire and several hundred rioters, including rioting children, were shot in the mayhem which spread to the rest of the country and continued for months. (Die Burger, 16 June 2000).

This gratuitous violence gave the world the opportunity to brand South Africa as a “brutal police state” and a host of new international punishment measures were imposed on the country, which sanctions lasted until the late eighties. All of this is based on a false story, sent around the world by an antagonistic media. Will the truth of this day 16 June in South Africa ever prevail, and will the truth about the real George Floyd ever prevail as America’s racial hysteria sends out an inflamed message to the world?

—Salomé Oosthuizen