When the world remembers the 16th of June 1976, Emily Mavimbela remembers the 18th. There was no cup of tea waiting for her at home after work. On any other day, the elder of her two sons, Sipho, would have poured her a cup. It was her favourite. Sipho would also have cleaned the kitchen by then. He was studiously tidy.
But Sipho, 17, never came home from school.
Mavimbela went in search of her son. For three days, she traced a futile circuit of clinics and hospitals. Eventually, on 21 June 1976, she found his body lying naked on the floor of Johannesburg’s state mortuary. The bullets that had been fired into Sipho’s chest had torn his back open when they left his body. Mavimbela buried him in the Alexandra cemetery five days later.
While a magistrate later confirmed to Mavimbela that the bullets had been fired by a police officer, official records maintain that Sipho was “presumably” killed by the police, and that liability for his death “cannot be determined”.
Sipho was one among at least 34 people mowed down by the police in Alex, north of Johannesburg, on 18 June 1976. Now 80, her hands made soft and arthritic by a lifetime of washing by hand as a domestic worker, Mavimbela is among those who lost loved ones in the now almost forgotten massacre.
Dispatches from Soweto
The student uprisings that shook apartheid’s foundations had begun in Soweto two days earlier. They soon spread. By 18 June 1976, powder kegs filled over generations of white minority rule on Gauteng’s East Rand and on campuses at the universities of Zululand and the North – two institutions designated for black Africans during apartheid – had been lit.
Alex, however, was the first and bloodiest stop in Soweto’s widening gyre.
There was no high school for black African students in the township. As a result, they either attended boarding schools in the former homelands or made daily trips, passbooks in hand, to Tembisa and Soweto. So, when students rose against the apartheid regime on 16 June, it did not take long before Alex was replete with first-hand accounts.
Rumours rippled through classrooms at the Alexandra Secondary School that it would soon be their turn.
Student leaders had also been moving between Soweto and Alex. Among them was Barney Mokgatle, a native of Alex who had been a close friend and deputy of Tsietsi Mashinini in Soweto. “Tsietsi was like my brother,” remembers Mokgatle. “We were like finger and nail.” According to Mokgatle, spreading the uprisings throughout the country was always key to a strategy to “divide and rule” the apartheid security forces.
On the evening of 17 June 1976, the decision was taken around the Alexandra Stadium football pitch that students would take to the streets the following day.
Corner of 2nd and Roosevelt
It was a chilly Friday morning. Bob Mahlangu, as wiry then as he is today, remembers his close friend Samuel “Toto” Skhosana walking to the front of the morning assembly and telling his classmates there would be no school that day.
It was the first time Mahlangu had been involved in an action of this scale. His first memory of the march was that “it sounded like a fun idea”. The struggle songs at the outset in Freedom Square, just across the street from Alexandra Secondary School, were catchy, he remembers. He even danced a little.
The march proceeded west across Alex, gathering senior learners from primary schools and residents along the way. It eventually approached the high school on 2nd Avenue that had been designated for those classified as coloured under apartheid, where the students planned to enlist further support before delivering a memorandum at the Alexandra Stadium. At the corner of Roosevelt Street, a police cordon stood in their way.
Today, the street corner spills over with life. On one side, the smell of popcorn wafts out of Alex’s oldest movie house, the Kings Cinema, which has recently started screening films again. On another, a line of women sit at plastic tables, cleaning glistening heaps of chicken livers and gizzards.
But 43 years ago, the corner of 2nd and Roosevelt teetered on a knife’s edge. At the head of the march, Mahlangu was caught in the middle of the standoff. The students pushed forward. The police cocked their weapons. Near enough to see their faces, Mahlangu remembers of the police, “they were as afraid as we were.” A few stones were hurled from behind him. The police opened fire.
In the ensuing chaos, Mahlangu dashed beneath the cover of some trees in what was called a “double-up”, a piece of open land used for pedestrian short cuts. The lifeless body of Japie Mangoeng Vilankulu, said by some to be the police’s first victim on the day, lay across the gravel road, his blood curdled by the dust. Today, the spot is a driveway between some homes and the Makgalaka Tuck Shop where children play soccer with balls of rolled up plastic packets.
When the dust settled on the Alex uprising, the police had killed 34 people. Eight of them, including Sipho, were schoolchildren. Among them was 12-year-old Shadrack Kekane and 13-year-old Godfrey Mahapo.
Buildings owned and managed by the West Rand Bantu Affairs Administration Board were targeted during the uprising, as they were in Soweto, and damaged to the tune of what today would be nearly R30 million.
The police justified their violence as a response to alleged looting during the uprisings. But for a reprimand for being unprepared, the Cillie commission into the causes of the 1976 uprisings exonerated their actions when it was tabled in Parliament four years later.
Earlier on the morning of the 18th, shortly after Sipho and his classmates had walked out of morning assembly and on to the streets of Alex, Constable Khagoli Mothibe’s day took an equally dramatic turn at the Randburg Police Station 15km to the west.
After receiving instructions to report at the police station in Alex, Mothibe was whisked up as a translator for the anti-riot unit under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Gert Slabbert, who later said in an affidavit that he had received orders earlier that morning to “fight the Alexandra riots”.
It was a devastating fight.
Slabbert ordered nine of the 34 recorded killings during a two-hour tour of the uprising’s flare-ups. Throughout, Mothibe translated Slabbert’s instructions over a loud hailer, in some instances to crowds of more than 200 protestors: “Stand or be shot.” Most did not stand.
Slabbert did not hesitate to fire his 9mm pistol at the fleeing crowds. He failed to recall if any of his shots found their mark. The memories of the men under his command were considerably clearer in sworn affidavits.
Slabbert’s units were particularly deadly in the area around what was the Greens shopping centre on 1st Avenue. Gert Swanepoel, 27, missed with the first two shots he fired at a woman wearing a light green dress and a blanket draped around her shoulders. She carried a heater and radio in her arms. His third shot hit her in the back. She fell, dead, on to a nearby doorstep. “There was no other way to prevent the thieves escaping but to shoot,” said Swanepoel. “The crowd of bantus were rebellious that day.”
Petrus Meintjes, a sergeant from John Vorster Square police station, killed two skinny men in their early twenties with his R1, the assault rifle capable of firing 650 rounds a minute that apartheid prime minister Hendrik Verwoerd had officially welcomed into South Africa’s armed forces a decade earlier. One wore a white T-shirt and brown pants. The other, a grey raincoat over his blue turtleneck and mustard shirt.
Meintjies, who killed two more people later that afternoon, including a teenage boy, said that pursuing fleeing crowds on foot was too dangerous. “[They were] volatile at all times. The crowds were rebellious, threw stones and made black power signs,” he said.
The flat ground
The arthritis had already crept into Mavimbela’s hands when she said goodbye to Sipho for the last time. It was the main reason Sipho attended school, to become a doctor. “So that you can rest,” he often told his mother.
Sipho was “sweet at all times”, says Mavimbela. It’s his laugh she remembers best. A short, impish “heh” rather than a long “hahaha”.
“Now, today, this is my rest,” says Mavimbela in reference to the still unmarked grave where Sipho is buried. “I can’t find peace.”
It is difficult to establish which police officer killed Sipho and whether Slabbert, or somebody else, gave the order. But Mavimbela’s wish for closure is more modest than that. She simply wants a tombstone to commemorate her son’s life. “What is hurting me most is that I used to be young, but I am old now. What is it that I can do? Soon I will pass away with my son’s grave being as flat as it is. That’s what hurts me most.”
Alex’s omission from the record of 1976 has made her cynical of the likelihood of this small justice. The few who come to the township every year to commemorate the sacrifices made by Sipho and his classmates “get to go and find life with the names of our beloved”, says Mavimbela. “Yet we have nothing. My son is still lying in the flat ground.”