Resistance, Rage and Sorrow in Alf Kumalo’s photographs of Soweto, June 16th 1976

by Kylie Thomas

Alf Kumalo, widely regarded as one of South Africa’s most important photographers, chronicled more than fifty years of the country’s turbulent history. Kumalo lived much of his life in Soweto, and in 1976, when students rose up against apartheid, he was there to document their defiance, as well as the lethal response of the South African Police Force.

The protests began when students refused to be taught in Afrikaans, and they vowed to bring an end to so-called ‘Bantu Education’, a system that I.B Tabata described as “an instrument for serfdom”.  Passed into law in 1953, ‘Bantu Education’ served not only to reinforce segregation and to severely limit opportunities for Black South Africans, but was also designed to teach them their place in the white supremacist order. In a speech delivered in 1954, when he served as Minister of Native Affairs (he was to become Prime Minister four years later), H.F Verwoerd made his intentions clear:

“When I have control of Native education I will reform it so that Natives will be taught from childhood to realise that equality with Europeans is not for them. People who believe in equality are not desirable teachers for the Natives. Education must train and teach people in accordance with their opportunities in life, according to the sphere in which they live.”

Protests against the imposition of ‘Bantu Education’ began in the 1950s and were reignited after the apartheid government introduced Afrikaans as a language of instruction in schools in 1974.

Soweto, 1976

On June 16th 1976, thousands of school pupils in Soweto marched to Orlando Stadium to protest against being forced to learn in Afrikaans. That day, 23 people were reported killed by the police (the precise number of people killed is contested), and over the next ten days, more than 176 people were shot dead by the police, many of them children who were shot in the back while running away. Hundreds more were wounded.

Figure One: Students in Soweto holding a sign that reads, “Destroy Bantu Education”, Soweto, June 1976.

Photograph by Alf Kumalo, Photography Legacy Project Archive.

At the centre of Kumalo’s photograph of a group of young people holding a handwritten sign that reads ‘Destroy Bantu Education’, is the sombre, knowing face of the young man with a patch over his one eye (Figure One). In that time and place it is almost certain that he was injured by gunshot, sjambok, or torture. His unseeing eye is offset by the questioning gaze of the young boy at the far right of the image, which seems to be directed towards the photographer, and consequently towards us who view this image today. His oversized jacket, folded at the cuff, and the slightness of his hand, make clear that he is no more than a child. The force of the photograph operates through the tragic valence of the visual pun that structures it – these young people are seeking an exit from the emergency of apartheid, and although the glass of the emergency exit has been smashed out of the back of the bus, they remain trapped by the system they seek to destroy. 

Collective Hopes

In the weeks that followed, the uprising continued and spread across the country. An estimated 700 people were killed and 4000 injured. Many of the student leaders fled into exile. Among them were Tsietsi Mashinini and Khotso Seatlholo, final year high school students and South African Student Movement (SASM) leaders who spearheaded the protests in Soweto. Mashinini was hunted by the police and fled to Botswana in August 1976, Seatlholo was forced to follow in 1978.

Alf Kumalo’s photograph of the two young men, their right fists raised and their left hands clasped in friendship, is a portrait of their vulnerability as much as it is an image of their revolutionary fervour (Figure Two).

Figure Two: Tsietsi Mashinini and Khotso Seatlholo, two of the main student leaders, share a light-hearted moment in exile in Botswana. Just after the uprising, posters appeared saying ‘Tsietsi Mashinini wanted dead or alive’. He had to flee the country, and when Seatlholo took over the leadership, the posters were merely replaced with ones that read ‘Khotso Seatlholo wanted dead or alive’.

Photograph by Alf Kumalo, Photography Legacy Project Archive.

In 1977, Mashinini travelled to the United States where he was interviewed about the events of the previous year. In response to a question about the kinds of weapons the police used, he replied:

“Rifles, sten guns— rapid fire (rat-a-tat-tat), revolvers, batons. Some of the people died from teargas. […] During June l6th and the days that followed, they were using small canisters but later on they were using very big canisters, and they used to shoot then from big guns. […] And those, if it fell somewhere near you, like maybe we were running away, and you fell down and people trampled on you and that teargas exploded near you, it could literally kill you with the fumes.”

Figure Three: A Soweto resident runs away from the toxic teargas fumes in 1976. This was a method commonly used by the South African Police Force to disperse crowds during ‘illegal’ gatherings.

Photograph by Alf Kumalo, Photography Legacy Project Archive.

Twenty years after the Soweto uprising, Tsietsi Mashinini’s mother, Virginia Mashinini, testified at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Hearings about the events of June 16th and its aftermath, and described her surprise on learning that her son was leading the student uprising.

“They take our children to John Vorster, they beat them up, after beating them up they brought them home. Our children used to be beaten in John Vorster who were still very young because they knew nothing about politics. Even if when we were there at home they used teargas canisters in our yard. The teargas fumes, smoke  – even children used not to stay at home because they were afraid. They used to sleep outside, where, we don’t know. It was difficult for us until they went to exile.”

Tsietsi Mashinini never returned to experience freedom – the circumstances of his death remain unknown, but it is likely that he was murdered while in exile in Guinea in 1990. He was 33 years old.

June 1976 was a watershed moment in South African history, and while it is often referred to as the beginning of the end of apartheid, it also marked a time of increased state violence and repression. Kumalo’s photographs capture the collective hopes that defined a generation and serve as a reminder of the bitter price paid for freedom.

Figure Four: After June 1976, the youth increasingly played an important role in the liberation struggle. Not to be deterred by anyone or anything, they would fill up buses on their way to funerals and demonstrations in the 1970s and 1980s. Students hanging out of buses like these were a sign of the times.

Photograph by Alf Kumalo, Photography Legacy Project Archive.

Figure Five: Young mourners, enraged by the massacre of June 16, march at the Doornkop Cemetery in Soweto to attend the burial of the victims.

Photograph by Alf Kumalo, Photography Legacy Project Archive.

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Photograph by Joseph Chila (b. Mbouda, Cameroon, 1948); Possibly the children of Al Haji Idrissu, a Bamum merchant from Foumban; 2021 inkjet print from digital scan of original undated negative.