by Roger Ronnie
16 June 1976 will forever remain etched in the memories of those who passed through some of the darkest periods of our country’s history. It signalled the day that would turn the tide against apartheid oppression and provide the momentum that would eventually culminate in the 1994 democratic elections.
On this day, students in Soweto embarked on protest action against Afrikaans as a medium of education in schools. Who can ever forget the iconic photo of 12-year- old Hector Pieterson being carried by a fellow student after he had been shot by the police.
His death and that photo served as a major rallying point in the protests against inferior Apartheid education, police brutality and inequalities that black people had to endure. Athlone High, like many schools in the Western Cape, was not left untouched by these developments. However, the protests that erupted in Soweto took some time to arrive at universities and schools in Cape Town. Students at the University of the Western Cape were the first to come out in support of their compatriots in Soweto. Spearheaded by some students in the matric group a class boycott – in support of the demands raised by the Soweto students – was planned. The boycott started in the second week of August and drew support from amongst the entire student body
For many of the students, it was the first time they had participated in actions that directly opposed the policies and actions of those in authority. We also had to deal with a largely non-supportive academic staff keen to snuff out any prolonged and sustained protest action.
A student recalls that when he and a colleague requested the principal, Mr William Williams, to release a statement on behalf of the school in support of the Soweto students he refused. Mr Williams replied that in no way was he going to jeopardise his new status as principal. What he was willing to do, was to place a call to the newspapers.
He did this, promptly naming the students and informing the newsdesk that they wished to make a press statement. What he also did was to instruct the caretaker to ensure that the gates remained locked and made phone calls to parents of students participating in the protests.
Students were also extremely wary of some of the teachers who we thought could possibly be police informers. In hindsight, the teachers who were making enquiries were simply showing their support in the only way they knew how. But, we may very well have had police informers amongst the protesting students!
The weather also did not play along and we were subjected to the notorious Cape rain (“soft soaking rain”, as our geography teacher used to describe cyclonic precipitation) on at least one occasion. This did not however, deter the students from continuing with the protest action even if it meant taking shelter at times under the bicycle sheds on the north-western side of the premises, each time we had completed a circuit of the school.
Locked gates did not prevent the protesting Athlone High students from joining other schools in joint protest action. Nor did police intervention that included firing teargas onto the school grounds. The brave ones picked up the teargas cannisters and returned them to sender.
Another occasion was when students from nearby Bridgetown High passed our school, on their way to a student meeting at Alexander Sinton High, one of the few institutions at the time that had a hall. The school fence was quickly scaled and soon we were marching together across Clover Crescent.
The meeting at Alexander Sinton was also one of the first occasions that the struggles of students were linked to those of our parents as workers’ and student struggles were identified as two sides of the same coin.
This sentiment was echoed by many speakers at the Sinton meeting. But the spirited gathering was soon disrupted by an extremely hostile and brutal police force. After forcing their way onto the school grounds, they climbed into many of the students as a means of getting them to disperse. Some teachers who had fronted up to the police in order to protect the students were brutally beaten.
Many took refuge in the ceilings of the school to escape the police. This evasive action proved to be futile as tear gas canisters were lobbed into that space and students beaten when they tried to escape. Many students were also injured when the police opened fire with buckshot.
As the protests spread to many schools across the Cape Town metro area the need arose to co-ordinate activities in a more structured manner. A committee of students representing the protesting schools was established. Athlone High was represented on this committee and regular reports and feedbacks were given to students.
This approach was to be the modus operandi of protests that were to flare up again in 1980 and 1985. The 1976 protests contributed in no small way to the building and consolidation of school, university and community organisations.
For those of us in matric at Athlone High in 1976, the September exams were cancelled. However, we returned returned to school thereafter to prepare and write our final exams. For many other students across the country this partial return to normality was not to be. For them, the protests continued for the remainder of 1976, and many did not write their final exams at the end of 1976 or when presented with an opportunity to do so in early 1977. Many had by then gone into exile and or joined the broader liberation movement. Some paid the ultimate price for their commitment and bravery.
The strategies and tactics of the protests at Athlone High and within the broader student community was the subject of many debates, some quite heated. Of one thing all the parties were very clear, apartheid constituted a crime against humanity and we should all, in whatever way possible, contribute to its demise. The class of 1976 would like to think that we have stayed true to the lessons we drew from the protests.
As one student commented in June 2017, on the 41st anniversary of the protests: “41 years ago we experienced the most turbulent moments in our till then very short lives. Today we can reflect on how those days have shaped and moulded us into the people we have become. I see strong-willed, resilient personalities that I am proud to be associated with and privileged to call my friends.
Thank you Athlonians for your contribution to our country thus far; and thank you in advance for your commitment as we plot our way forward. The struggle continues!”
* I would like to thank the class of 1976 who filled in some of my memory gaps.