The pictures told the truth

2013-06-16 10:00

On the day police fired on Soweto pupils, Moeletsi Leballo was in the front line. That experience changed his life.

The morning started with a cold breeze, which was softened by the sunrise. June 16 1976 was the day each and every student waited for.

We were ready to sacrifice our lives for our country, education and liberation. We all woke up very early at home and got ready to leave for school.

We reported at our respective schools and held assemblies as usual. At Selelekela Secondary, our school principal and teachers gave me the platform.

I addressed the students and told them that from there we would walk to Phefeni and join fellow students in a peaceful protest march against the imposition of Afrikaans.

Students were ready and eager to move.

We left our books at school and walked out of the school yard. We were joined by neighbouring schools on our way and walked past Orlando Stadium.

Singing, we walked through a vast open field that separated Orlando and Phefeni. Not a single student remained behind.

Many walked, while others used all types of transport, coming to Phefeni in trains, buses, vans and cars, from across Soweto.

The response of all the students was overwhelming and heartening. We came in our thousands in anticipation of a solution to what we perceived as being a simple and small problem.

The number of students gathering at Phuti High School grew by the minute. A few journalists arrived and began taking pictures.

About 3km away, we saw a huge police convoy arrive in several pick-up vans and park in the vicinity of some houses.

Black and white police officers got out of the vehicles, guns and rifles in their hands. They all wore bulletproof vests and had police dogs with them.

These officers were apparently prepared and ready for war. We were not at all happy to see them. This was supposed to be a peaceful protest.

The least the government could have done was to send education officials with police to address our concerns. But only heavily armed policemen were there.

We were highly agitated and intimidated by the police presence. A confrontation loomed.

One member of the Soweto Students’ Representative Council called Seth, who was small in stature with a high-pitched voice, climbed on a tree stump for visibility and addressed the students.

He explained that we could not wait any longer, now that the police were there, and he urged students to act in an orderly and disciplined manner, with restraint and trying to avoid confrontation.

The protest march had to go on and no police force could stop us from accomplishing our mission. He loudly announced the beginning of the march.

We marched towards the police, because they were in our way. We stopped two kilometres from them, separated by an open field the size of two football fields.

We hoisted our cardboard placards for the police to see that all we wanted was equal education for all the children of the country. I advanced forward.

The police used a loudspeaker, ordering us to disperse. We sang “senzeni na, senzeni na (what wrong have we done)” and marched on.

I was in the front line. We stood our ground and continued with the song. We raised our fists and shouted “black power” while singing.

It was impossible for us to abandon a protest march that had just begun. It was now or never. We stopped when the police took aim and pointed their guns at us. We continued singing and raised our fists and placards high.

The police released a dog, which came at us, ready to tear flesh from skin. A few students in the front line took their blazers off and wrapped them on their arms.

In the blink of an eye, the dog was killed, and this signalled the determination of students to proceed with the protest march.

Nothing could stop us at this juncture. The police were angered by our unshakeable determination.

They had not expected such fearless and determined youths. Then they started shooting at us with live ammunition.

Injured and bleeding students fell and were quickly picked up by other students to receive first aid. The shooting transformed a peaceful march into a bloody confrontation.

Pandemonium broke out and students scattered and ran for cover and safety.

As I was in the forefront, I narrowly missed the bullets. Students were falling as bullets ripped through their limbs and bodies.

It was the first time I had heard the sound of a bullet pass so close to my body. It was the first time I had seen so many people hit by bullets at close range.

I stopped thinking about the danger of being injured and possible death. I thought only of fighting back. I wanted to lay my bare hands on the necks of these policemen.

Killing us complicated a volatile situation. This day confirmed my conviction and determination to fight for freedom.

It completely changed my life and that of many others. It was a day on which white South Africa ceased to exist.

This day gave birth to a brave, fearless, determined, fighting youth. What the media failed to conceal was that Soweto was on fire.

The media could not conceal the fact that live ammunition had been used against pupils and students.

Much as they tried to play down the events of the day, much as they portrayed the police as enforcing the law – the truth nevertheless came out.

Black journalists were there in the thick of things and captured telling pictures that revealed the truth to the nation and the world.

The pictures exposed the actions of the police as they happened. The pictures exposed police brutality against defenceless students.

The pictures revealed the lifeless body of Hector Pieterson in the arms of another student.

»?Leballo was chief prefect of Selelekela Junior in 1975. He left SA in October 1976 to go into exile. He studied for a medical degree in Bulgaria and qualified as a medical doctor in 1988.

»?This is an edited extract from his autobiography

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