Let's get it right: Biko's philosophy is what guided the Soweto uprising

Azapo members commemmorate Steve Biko at the prison cell where he took his last breath at Kgosi Mampuru II Correctional Services. File picture: Oupa Mokoena/African News Agency (ANA)

Azapo members commemmorate Steve Biko at the prison cell where he took his last breath at Kgosi Mampuru II Correctional Services. File picture: Oupa Mokoena/African News Agency (ANA)

Published Jun 14, 2020


It has been more than 40 years since the Soweto June 16 uprising, but the question “Which of the three main liberation movements was behind the uprising?” is highly contested.

Recently, we saw increasing social- media-driven attempts to credit the PAC as the mastermind of the event.

The development follows years of the ANC’s attempts to annex June 16 as its creation.

However, the fact is that the uprising was a product of the revolutionary work of Steve Biko’s Black Consciousness Movement (BCM).

It is important to set the record straight in order to avoid distortions and misrepresentations.

History is a people’s school to help shape the future. Defending history at times strikes us as too partisan and appropriative.

However, failure to defend the truth leaves historical events open to manipulation and may defile the memories of those who fell in the making of a people’s history.

The Soweto 1976 uprising must be recognised as the contribution of Biko’s BCM to the history of resistance.

If the historical record is so clear, why the confusion? The main source is the apartheid government.

Biko started the BCM as an aboveground movement in the aftermath of the banning of the ANC and the PAC, among others. Most leaders of the older movements were either in jail or in exile. There was a “lull” in the resistance throughout most of the ’60s.

The work Biko and others started in the late ’60s paid off rapidly. We saw, in 1972, the closing of universities, in solidarity with Abram Onkgopotse Tiro following his expulsion from Turfloop (now the University of Limpopo). Tiro, a close friend of Biko and a luminary of the BCM, was expelled for his powerful anti-apartheid speech delivered at the graduation ceremony.

The apartheid regime was shocked by the uprisings which rapidly became national. The regime did not believe students could - on their own and guided by a philosophy of liberation - organise such gigantic action against apartheid. They accused everyone, from communists, to the known leaders the likes of Zephania Mothopeng of the PAC, and Winnie Madikizela-Mandela of the ANC.

This apartheid denialism was real and people paid heavily for it. Madikizela-Mandela was arrested, spent four months in solitary confinement and then banished to Brandfort in the Free State for eight years. Mothopeng was arrested with 17 others and spent 15 years on Robben Island.

When sentencing Mothopeng in 1979, Judge (David) Curlewis said: “You Mothopeng, acted to sow seeds of anarchy and revolution. The riots you engineered and predicted eventually took place in Soweto on June 16 and at Kagiso the next day.” Mothopeng’s co-accused were mostly high school learners from Kagiso in Krugersdorp.

The apartheid regime took the Mothopeng trial to Bethal, far from the centre of the struggle. The trial was held in secret. Clearly, the apartheid regime wanted to avoid another public political trial which like the South African Student Organisation trial where Biko gave a powerful testimony which is partly responsible for radicalising the Soweto learners.

The Bethal trialists were subjected to a torture regime. At least four were murdered while in detention. Survivors tell of horror stories, including being thrown out of windows from tall buildings.

Student leaders were detained and forced to make statements implicating Madikizela-Mandela.

The testimony of one, Dr Aaron Montoedi Matlhare, the chairperson of the Soweto Parents Association, was even more damning. Like Murphy Morobe and others, he had been dragged from his jail cell. He told the bogus Cillliers Commission of Inquiry into the Soweto riots, set up by the apartheid regime: “On Tuesday, 15th June 1976, at about 2.30am that same night I was called out to a patient. As I later drove back home I passed Winnie Mandela’s house. I noticed people coming out of her gate and I switched on my bright lights, and I saw Aubrey Mokoena and Tsietsi Mashinini very clearly in my lights. They were in the company of Winnie Mandela”.

The date June 15 is critical, since it means Madikizela-Mandela was with the leaders of the revolt up to the early hours of the day of the uprising. Taken together with Morobe’s testimony, there is little doubt that Madikizela-Mandela was at the centre of the revolt.

Well, that’s what the witnesses who were tortured and in detention had to say. This is true of the State witnesses against Mothopeng.

The point is that we cannot rely

on the behaviour of the apartheid regime and its claims to determine who was the driving force behind the uprising. We have to examine who were the leaders and what was their political affiliation.

Mashinini is the undisputed leader of the uprising and he was a member of the BCM-affiliated South African Students Movement.

Mashinini had been brought to BCM by Tiro, his history teacher. After his expulsion from the university, Tiro was employed at Morris Isaacson, the high school of Mashinini.

Tiro had politicised and organised the youth of Soweto before he was forced to exile where the apartheid state sent a parcel bomb to kill him

two years before the fruit of his

revolutionary labour came to fruition.

There is little doubt that the student leaders were in touch with some of the non-BCM leaders like Mothopeng and Madikizela-Mandela. But this does not suggest those organisations could be credited for the uprising.

I had the honour of living in the same house with Khotso Seatlholo,

the second-in-charge of the uprising after Mashinini. He had fled to exile after holding fort for a little longer than Mashinini. Seatlholo told us that it was Madikizela-Mandela who advised them not to join the ANC or PAC in exile because they had given up fighting. She said they must raise an army and come back home and fight.

The story of how the ANC tried to coerce Mashinini to join it in exile is equally fascinating. The real leaders of the June 16, 1976 uprising were the students guided by the BCM philosophy of Steve Biko. That’s why it’s symbol was the Black Power clenched fist. May the historical record reflect this truth.

* Andile Mngxitama is president of Black First Land First.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL.

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