Soweto uprising school turns 50

By Bafana Nzimande

Johannesburg - An important heritage school in Soweto celebrated its 50th anniversary on June 8.

To ring in its coming of age, Naledi High School planned a massive public event at its premises, to acknowledge the part the school played on 16 June 1976 -  Youth Day.

Back in 1976, scores of Soweto pupils took to the streets in protest against the use of Afrikaans language as a medium of instruction.

Pupils first gathered at Naledi High School and walked to Morris Isaacson High School in Jabavu. Along the way they collected more pupils in nearby schools, hoping the peaceful march would challenge the Bantu Education curriculum and essentially reverse the process. 

The march ended in tragic bloodshed, when state police opened fire on stone-throwing pupils. Dozens of pupils were critically injured, among them 13-year-old Hector Pieterson, who was one of those who lost their life that day.

Gruesome pictures of this clash were spread worldwide. The image of a traumatised pupil, Mbuyisa Makhubo, carrying a dying Pieterson shook the world.

The day became globally known as “Soweto Uprising” and became a symbol of resistance to the brutality of apartheid.

Speaking to eNCA.com Naledi High School principal Kenneth Mavathulana said details of the Soweto Uprising have been distorted in the past. He said his school's contribution was not fully acknowledged in the history books.

“The June 16 protest did not just fall from a tree. There were many activities that took place prior to that day and pupils from Naledi High School played a significant role in some of these strategic events,” said Mavathulana.

The principal said the first act of defiance towards police by Soweto pupils was on June 8, 1976 at Naledi High.

On that day, pupils burnt a police vehicle at the school yard. The vehicle had visited the school to arrest Enos Ngutshane, regional leader of the South African Students Movement (SASM). Ngutshane had written a protest letter to the apartheid-era Education Minister, slating Afrikaans as a medium of instruction.

“The burning of that police vehicle was the first sign of anger and frustration shown by black pupils towards the apartheid system. The incident gave local pupils courage to stand up against government and it was one of the events that inspired the June 16 march,” said Mavuthulana.

Ngutshane, who now holds a senior position at Passenger Rail Agency of South African Rail, escaped arrest that day, but was arrested June 14.

While police clashed with Soweto pupils on June 16, Ngutshane was making his first court appearance on charges of public violence.

His case was postponed and he was remanded in custody.

“At that time I was not sure if I would see this country’s freedom. But, I remained calm and was prepared to fight this cause till the end,” Ngutshane told eNCA.com

He was released a few months later as the state could not prove its case against him.

“The country has made some great progress but more still needs to be done. The type of education our children receive needs to improve. Housing and the bucket toilet system are some of the areas that still need to be addressed, but I believe we on the right track,” said Ngutshane.

To celebrate the school’s 50th anniversary, 10 classrooms are expected to be named after former pupils, a new sport facility is planned to be unveiled and 250 commemorative books that retell stories about Naledi High School's role in socio-political history are expected to be distributed. 

A copy of Ngutshane’s letter decrying bantu education is also expected to be handed to the heritage council.

Naledi High School former students list includes former presidency director-general Frank Chikane, Mike Siluma, Dan Molefe, Popo Molefe, Wire Khoali, Zanele Mthembu, Kehla Mthembu and Sparks Banda.

“The school has a great history and we hope it will continue making a meaningful contribution in our country’s history.

"Last year our Grade 12’s reached a 76 percent pass rate, this year we aiming to go beyond the 80 percent mark,” said Mavathulana.

 

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