By Zubeida Jaffer*
The year 1976 will always be remembered as the year when the schoolchildren of Soweto rose up against Apartheid education. Interestingly, it was also the year when television first came to South Africa.
ENCA television anchor, Freek Robinson was a junior reporter at the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) television at the time. He recalled that at the end of the first day of the uprising on June 16, 1976, the newsroom was fully aware that the schoolchildren were marching against Afrikaans in Soweto.
“It was known throughout the world” he said. The next day, he and a cameraman set off to Soweto. They had to stop in town to first get a permit to enter the township. In those days, white people could not enter any township without first alerting the authorities. The permit office then alerted the local police in Soweto and the drill was to first check in at the station.
They made their way through police roadblocks and headed for the station. Before they reached there, they found themselves driving towards a group of pupils. “The next thing a brick came flying through the window straight into the cameraman,” he said. ” He was bleeding. We turned around and with the help of a black policeman was able to get away.”
Management at the SABC decided not to let the young reporter go into the field again. “It was a very traumatic experience,” he said.
His sense was that in the first weeks of the uprising, the SABC freely covered the events but slowly restrained itself as it came to the conclusion that the coverage was adding fuel to the fire. “I did not get the sense at first that people were ordered what to cover,” he said.
Independent researcher Gail Berhmann provided a list of some of the shots that were used during those months. Time did not allow for viewing of the full 81 minutes of film archived at the SABC in Johannesburg.
On the list of over 40 scenes, the images are not too varied and definitely gave no sense of agency to the protestors. Here follows her descriptions of five of the clips.
00:28:05:05 armed police in the township – note the shanties in the background
00:28:41:19 people boarding bus under police watch. Interior crammed with people and an armed policeman who rides with the bus
00:29:07:21 brief shot of women waiting to board bus. Bus is marked Parkmore, a very wealthy white suburb bus on its way to city. Shots of burnt out and shattered buildings
00:29:25:10 sound SABC cameraman at the back of a police patrol vehicle, much laughter, armed policeman randomly shoots at group of people.
00:29:46:00 helicopter in the air
“It is fairly clear from the footage that the SABC were both embedded with police and working on their own, said Berhmann.
The iconic image that was to go across the whole world was the picture that appeared in Percy Qoboza’s newspaper, the World on June 17, 1976. The photographer, Sam Nzima told the story to Yadhana Jadoo of The Citizen newspaper
Nzima was 38 years old and armed with a small camera joined the marching scholars that morning. When the shooting started he ran for cover but then carefully made his way back to observe the events.
It was then that he witnessed the shooting of Hector Pieterson, the first death of hundreds that would follow. In front of him was the image of a young Mbuyisa Makhubu carrying the bleeding Pieterson in his arms.
Besides him was Pieterson’s sister, Antoinette Sithole. Click. Click. He took the picture that remains the iconic symbol of that dramatic day and known across the world.
It was not without consequences for him. His work at The World was soon to come to an abrupt end. After death threats and impending detention, he decided it was best to go back home to his village of Lillydale in Bushbuckridge, Mpumalanga near Nelspruit.
The Nelspruit’s security branch arrived at his door and slapped him with an 18-month house arrest order effectively preventing him from working as a journalist.
Today he still lives there hanging onto his prized possession: an old Pentax camera with a standard 50mm lens. It has taken years for him to secure copyright to the photograph.
By the time the protests ran its course across the country for a few months, more than a thousand would be dead. (See extract from John Matisonn’s book, God, Spies and Lies which sketches the broader context of the unprecedented events)
Veteran journalist, Sylvia Vollenhoven who joined the SABC post 1994, produced a documentary in 2008 called “Getting away with murder”. The docudrama is a tough look at the role the apartheid media played in gross human rights.
“Journalists had to withhold information and in some cases tell lies,” said Vollenhoven. “Distorting access to information was a gross violation of human rights as it contributed to create a surreal semblance of normality during the bad old days.”
It was a very different time and a very different country. Looking back from the vantage point of 2016, Robinson, who remained at the SABC until 2010, reflected on the years of suppressing the news at the SABC. “It was of no use because the truth will always come out,” he said.
Zubeida Jaffer is an award-winning South African journalist and author. She is based at the University of the Free State as Writer-in-Residence, tasked with reshaping the journalism curriculum.
Her work has earned her numerous local and international awards. These include the Muslim Views Achiever Award as well as the Honor Medal for Distinguished Service to Journalism from the University of Missouri in the USA. She is also the first woman in Africa to have won the coveted foreign journalist award from the National Association of Black Journalists in the USA.
Her memoir, Our Generation, eloquently tells the story of her emotional journey through the years of South Africa’s turbulence into a new democracy. It has been translated into Arabic and published in Egypt. Her second book Love in the Time of Treason has been described as a “tour de force”. Her most recent book, Africa The Untold Story, is the second in a series of pocket-sized books that she is self-publishing.
Ms Jaffer is a graduate of both UCT and Rhodes University. She also holds a masters degree from Columbia University in New York where she earned the award for best foreign student.
Culled from The Journalist