The history of 1976 belongs to the students who defied an authoritarian regime. Their struggle was often aided by older activists, many of them women, who grew up in socially active homes.

cecelie Women like Cecilie Palmer, Pauline Buyeye and Nkepile Maite have spent their lives fighting for the freedoms you enjoy. (Image: Mathiba Molefe)

• Recollections of 16 June 1976
Lessons from the class of 1976
Barney Mokgatle fought back
Dr Edelstein never saw colour
22 memories of martyrs for our freedom

Publishing Media Club South Africa stories - click here


The history of 16 June 1976 is a chronicle of heroes. Men like Barney Mokgatle, Enos Ngutshane and Tsietsi Mashinini. Martyr’s like Hector Pieterson and Hastings Ndlovu remind us that the cost of our freedom was dear.

There is also what some activist calls the “the hidden light” of the struggle. The role of women in 1976 is often forgotten or ignored.
Too many believe that women’s involvement ended in 1956 when 20 000 women marched on the Union Buildings. There were thousands of women activists who came after whose stories are absent from our history.

Women were, 1976 student activist Nkepile Maite explains, as involved as male students. “We were united, women and men. We used to help one another. We used to eat together. We used to have meetings together.”

maite Nkapile Maite believes that strong social bonds will lead to stronger communities. (Image: Mathiba Molefe)

And, as Pauline Buyeye reminds her friends, “We were arrested together.” Buyeye was arrested at the Swaziland border while helping a student across. “They told us they knew what we were doing. That we were going to train as terrorists and come back and kill the whites. I was taken to Krugersdorp Prison where I was tortured. My mother was arrested because she helped the students as well.”

Maite’s activism was born in the Alexandra community of her youth. Her home was filled with the activist friends of her parents. Maite and her friends studied at community centres where their teachers strayed from the government decreed curriculum. “There was a time we did not know what was going on but then we learnt. Poetry about the struggle, about apartheid and about the ill treatment of our parents.”

Buyeye was already operating in the underground in June 1976. She remembers, “The mountain close to Mama Winnie’s (Mandela) house, children’s shoes and clothes were left there as children were running from the police who were shooting at them.” After that day, she says, nothing could be the same again.

Buyeye Our freedoms are the result of the sacrifices of women like Pauline Buyeye whose activism lead to her facing the hangman.  (Image: Mathiba Molefe)

Today, she continues a black child can be a scientist, a doctor. You can be anything you are willing to work towards being. That freedom to dream she says came from the sacrifice of the children of 1976. “There was this unbreakable chain. We were taught to be labourers, we were taught to be slaves. They thought they could sweep us with a gun but it never happened that way. It happened the other way.”

Buyeye was put on trial for terrorism. Held in isolation for 18 months as she endured two trials after the judge in her first trial died. “Arthur Chaskalson (the senior defence counsel) came to us and told us the judge was in a coma. He said we must pray that this judge, who was there to hang us, dies. That judge was assigned to hang us, I acclimatized myself to that. As long as my children were to be free in my country I could die for a good cause.”

Pupils who organized and the marchers who took to the streets of Soweto in June 1976 had their own minds, they knew what they were standing up for and nobody was going to stop them. But, Cecilie Palmer points out, this did not stop the authorities from harassing older activists.

“When the police were hunting Tsietsi (Mashinini) my mother (Vesta Smith) took him into our home. There were older women who were locked up because they (the government) thought we were influencing the students.”

Palmer was locked up at the Women’s Gaol (for a while she was there with her mother) in central Johannesburg from July 1976. “There was a time in September or October when we were saying can’t these children stop now, we want to get out.”

However the students were determined and intent on shaking up their parents, and older activist who they believed were too soft. Eventually, “We persuaded the children to go back to school and we would continue the fight. Which is exactly what happened.”

History has been misremembered the three women agree. This is an egregious disservice to today’s youth. There is this misconception that the students of 1976 were allowed to run wild, it is forgotten that parents were drawn into the struggle and became active participants and, in a sense, chaperones. Buyeye recalls, “Parents became involved. Teachers were arrested for teaching so parents sat in class and kept an eye on the children. Today most of them are educated and accomplished. “

The students who took on the might of the apartheid security service were not running wild in the streets. They were well organized. They did not burn schools, they targeted bottle stores and beerhalls. For good reason.

Palmer begins, “This jail (the Women’s Gaol in Braamfontein) was overcrowded most of the time. Women arrested for minor offences. Pass laws and beer brewing. Brewing mkomboti was made illegal and women were arrested, in the meantime the municipalities built beer halls were they made an imitation mkomboti. White men could come into the townships and make money off of us while black women were being arrested for doing the very same thing.”

Palmer remembers the many politically active friend of her parents who, unconsciously, helped shaped her sense of right and wrong. “My mother would introduce me to Uncle Pixley (ka Isaka Seme), who was my grandfather’s ANC colleague in those years. In 1976 my mother was in jail with me. I was pregnant so it was actually three of us in jail at the time.”

We have lost a sense of community that the protests and everything that came after was built on. Maite explained her thinking, “My mother’s house was open and I learnt from her social activism. Today my son, he runs a gym sponsored by Richard Branson, and he trains young people. Keeps them away from the bad things in our community. It is a thing that was instilled in us, that we are part of a community and that we help each other. We were taught that each and everyone one of us can make a difference.”

In 1976 students did not have a platform to air their grievances, as students do today. Palmer believes a vote is the loudest, most effective platform we have today. “My grandchildren ask me why I still vote. I tell them it’s their patriotic duty to vote. It does not matter who you vote for as long as you vote for what you believe is right. Always. Always use your voice.” 


cecelie copy Cecilie Palmer points out her mother Vesta Smith who was imprisoned at the Women's Gaol at the same time as her. (Image: Mathiba Molefe)