Breakfast with David O’Sullivan spoke to with Prof Sifiso Ndlovu.
By David O’Sullivan
This year we commemorate the 41st anniversary of the Soweto uprisings. 41 years ago, a young student named Sifiso Ndlovu was at Phefeni Junior Secondary School in Orlando West. He and his classmates had been boycotting their education from March 1976 in protest at being taught in Afrikaans.
The older students at the Senior Secondary School and at other high schools were not experiencing a similar fate – not yet. Government plans were afoot to introduce Afrikaans as a medium of instruction at all schools and this fate would befall them if they didn’t make their voices heard. Meanwhile, the youngsters at Phefeni Junior Secondary school – children aged between 13 and 15 – were already failing their exams because they couldn’t understand the language and couldn’t cope with writing exams in Afrikaans. They started their boycott as far back as March and urged fellow students at other schools to join them. Their boycott action would grow and culminate in a planned march past the Orlando Police Station to government administration offices in Booysens on Wednesday, June 16th.
The story of what transpired has been well told. Police met the peaceful protest with violence which left hundreds of students dead and sparked a tumultuous upheaval in South African politics which forever reshaped the country’s future. It started with the young boys and girls from Phefeni Junior Secondary School, who, on their own initiative, inspired by only themselves, started a protest months before 16 June 1976. Sifiso Ndlovu was one of those boys. His book details the buildup to one of the biggest days in South African history and properly spells out the critical role played by the students from Phefeni Junior Secondary School. The team from Breakfast With David took Prof Ndlovu back to his old school where we got him to recount those days. We took him to his old classroom and sat with him at his old desk.
To our astonishment, he had not been back to that classroom since 1976. The emotion was thick in the air as he spoke slowly and carefully, as historians do, about his memories of 1976. For him, it’s not just about 16 June. It’s about the days and months leading up to that fateful day, the days that paved the way for the Soweto Uprisings.