Remember That June

Installation view of photographs by George Hallett.
Text by by Christine Eyene

There is a picture at Ormston House in Limerick, presented as part of the Murder Machine exhibition. It shows a woman wrapped in white sheets. She is lying down with her eyes closed. On her right eyelid is placed a silver coin, while a snake slithers above her head. This picture was taken by Cape Town photographer George Hallett probably in the late 1970s while he was in exile in London. It was used for the cover of a collection of short stories by Nigerian author Ifeanyichukwu N. C. Aniebo entitled Of Wives, Talismans and the Dead (1983). This was one of the images created during George’s collaboration with Heinemann’s African Writers Series then led by James Currey, British editor born to South African parents.

Lorna image book

Most of George’s compositions either reflected the title of a book or enticed the viewer/reader with an image symbolizing the story plot. As such, they function as illustrations, but they also speak on another level. They are registers of the sitters’ presence and existence in a very specific moment. Recalling his relationship with Heinemann Educational Books in James Currey’s Africa Writes Back, George explained his creative process and mentioned that:

Friends from the extensive South African exiled community in London and further afield became my models and accomplices in the creation of new covers. Pallo Jordan danced for A Dancer of Fortune. Louis Moholo was hung upside down with handcuffs for Robben Island. Lorna de Smit (sic) became a corpse with a silver coin on one eye while a Gabon viper kept vigil nearby.[1]

To most South Africans, and maybe beyond, the first two names are familiar. Pallo Jordan, anti-apartheid activist, politician, South African cabinet minister between 1994 and 2009 where he even held the position of Minister of Arts and Culture (2004-2009). Louis Moholo, famous jazz drummer, one of the founders of the legendary South African jazz band The Blue Notes, still performing internationally – he was one of last year’s Café Oto residents. Less is known about Lorna.

A fortuitous encounter between my sister Mado and Lorna in Paris in the early 1980s developed in a long term friendship that introduced us to the South African exile circles that navigated between Paris and London. However it is only in the later part of the 1990s – as I interviewed her for my research on Gerard Sekoto, 1990s South African art, and simply because to me she was one of those living encyclopedias – that I understood who Lorna really was and what had been her life in South Africa.

Lorna de Smidt was born in Cape Town in 1943 to mixed-race parents. Eager to learn from a very young age, at four years old she stood in front of her local school every morning, crying her desire for education until faced by her tenacity, and weary, the teacher eventually let her in. When her father joined the Liberal Party he would take her with him to their meetings. One winter morning when she was eight, she and her sister were sent out to distribute tracts. As she handed a first tract to a Xhosa worker, he returned it to her saying that it was not for him. She then turned to a second worker to the same effect. As she gently insisted, she was explained that black South Africans could not vote. That is when she discovered apartheid and began to feel the injustice of the regime.
An avid reader, she joined her local library at ten and devoured the books she borrowed. She had a particular interest in the Second World War and concentration camps. Her reading of Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl helped her draw parallels between Nazi Germany and Apartheid. She also read Freud at seventeen.

In 1960, Lorna earned her teacher diploma and taught for a year, during which time she quickly understood that the educational system imposed by the government did not allow her to apply her ideas of intellectual independence and sense of values, nor to have an active and constructive role in her community. Inspired by Jack Kerouac whose writing nurtured her desire to see the world, she decided to leave. However these dream and journey were cut short by her first pregnancy.
After three years, she resumed teaching, and began a new relationship. However, her marriage to her Indian husband suffered from the stigma of racial classifications and the Group Area Act that exacerbated a patriarchal oppression in a place where her presence was only tolerated because she was married to an Indian man. She took off with her eight-month old twins and settled in Cape Town where she found work as an English and history teacher.

16 June 1976, in Soweto (Johannesburg) black students protested against the education system imposed on them. As the effects of the uprising reached Cape Town, Lorna expressed her support for the student’s movements and wrote about the protests under the pseudonym Joanna in an article entitled “A grim lesson in contemporary history” published in The Guardian (07/12/1976). She was arrested and spent four months in solitary confinement. Upon her release at the end of 1976, she got the tip of an impending house arrest order against her.

As if losing her job, being penniless, and listed as a political enemy, was not enough, Lorna also fell in love with Graham, a white South African who refused to join the South African Army and go to war in Namibia, therefore risking detention in military barracks. In addition to that, he being a white man and she a “Cape Coloured” woman – according to apartheid’s racial classification – the Immorality Act and the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act made their love a crime punishable by law, leaving them no other choice but to flee the country. They did so in the middle of 1977 through Botswana where they lived as refugees for six months before eventually being able to fly to London via Nairobi.[2]

Lorna and Graham de Smidt arrived in London in February 1978, three months before the birth of their daughter. As newcomers in the country, they experienced hardship but remained committed anti-apartheid activists and advocates for equality in British society. Graham worked both as a photographer and in education. Lorna worked as a journalist and political scientist. She was also in charge of overseeing the refurbishment of the South Africa House in London, and worked with contemporary South African artists to address the racially discriminatory art pieces decorating the listed building so that it reflected the new South Africa and its cultural diversity. (Read about the renovated South Africa House in the Evening Standard, 9 Nov. 2001).

Both Graham and Lorna have shared their knowledge of South African history and culture. Some time ago, probably around the early 2000s, they invited me to their home to see if the books they were about to give away could be useful to my research. At the time, they were not, but I took them out of interest in the history of resistance in South Africa. Forty years after the Soweto Uprising that has set in motion their path to exile, and our encounter four or five years later, I wanted to revisit this material and honour the memory of those who fought, and those who lost their life, for better education, freedom and equal rights.

Remember That June

… and mothers wailing for lost sons
who disappeared amongst the guns
and screams, and death, and funeral marches,
And that monster island in the sea,
from its poisonous tentacles,
will we ever be free?

Gladys Thomas, from the poem Remember That June [3]

The context: Bantu Education

The Soweto Uprising was a series of protests, led by black South African high school students, that began on the morning of 16 June 1976. The students main grievance was the introduction of the Afrikaans Medium Decree (1974) that forced all black schools to use Afrikaans as a medium of instruction in arithmetic, mathematics and social studies, while science, woodwork, arts and crafts would be taught in English.
Falling under the umbrella of the Bantu Education this decree added to the resentment felt toward the Bantu Education Act (1953) designed to prepare black children to subordinate roles in society. A campaign against this act was launched involving parents and teachers in rural and urban areas. Many teachers resigned rather than teach in the Bantu Education system.

This is Africa

The Bantu Education system was based on a dictum enunciated by Afrikaner Nationalist Hendrik Verwoed – also known as “the architect of apartheid” – who wanted to ensure that blacks would not be “deceived or tempted to believe that they will graze on those green pastures reserved for the master race of this country”. [5]
The delusional idea of white superiority was one of the founding myths of South African society. It filtered through all aspects of life down to education. Numerous writings and visual representations exemplify the views the white settlers and their descendants had of black people. In This is South Africa, a general culture book dated 1947, a year before the implementation of apartheid, one finds in the chapter on education that only one-third of [Native] children attended school and that “this [was] sometimes attributed to their native state of barbarism […].”[6]

While counterbalancing this statement by saying that “large numbers of Natives have a longing for education”, that “children flock to what schools there are”, and that “there is no such thing an empty Native class-room”, the authors concluded this chapter quite revealingly by pondering on “the controversial question of educating the non-European”:

On the one hand, they write, it is becoming increasingly clear that our much vaunted cheap labour is only apparently cheap, for a great deal of it is inefficient, and will always be so as long as the majority of our population which supplies our labour remains illiterate. On the other hand, the education of the non-European is considered by very many to be a danger to the continuation of white civilization, both from the economic and the social angle.[7]

To this effect, the government ensured black children received inferior standards of education as shown in this report published by the International Defence and Aid Fund for Southern Africa (IDAF):

school expenditure

Teacher ratio

Jill Johnson writes in Soweto Speaks that “to whites in and around Johannesburg the 1976 Soweto riots came as a sudden shock, violence that seemingly erupted without warding. This was not so. Soweto resident and political reporter, Zwelakhe Sisulu, relates how countrywide dissent and the growth of Black Consciousness spawned the June riots, not in a matter of weeks, but over a period of five to six years […] Black students, he says, have always had grievances against the education system. Black people have always had grievances against the inferior treatment they get, generally speaking, in the out-of-school situation. But with the advent of Black Consciousness students became very well organized at university level”.[8]

A movement that emerged in the late 1960s, Black Consciousness was defined by its leader Steve Biko as referring to the black man and his situation, and by the acknowledging his oppression “through institutionalized machinery, through laws that restrict him from doing certain things, through heavy work conditions, through poor pay, through very difficult living conditions, through poor education”.[9] Black Consciousness was the philosophy that informed the South African Students’ Organisation (SASO) formed by Biko in 1968. The first aim stated by the organisation was: “to crystallise the needs and aspirations of the non-white students and to seek to make known their grievances.”[10]

By 1976 the student protests crystallised around the imposition of Afrikaans as language of education.

Of pride and oppression: Afrikaans, a polarised language

In his essay “The Black Afrikaans writer: A Continuing Dichotomy”, poet Hein Willemse reminds us that Afrikaans developed in the 18th century through contacts between the European colonizers, the Khoikhoi and San people. Later on, with the arrival of slaves and indentured workers from Angola, Java, Madagascar and Malaysia, the creolization of Cape Dutch or proto-Afrikaans received further impetus.[11] Interestingly, for staunch nationalists, Afrikaans was (and probably still is) seen as an authentically pure “white” language. Here is how “modern Afrikaans” was described in the pre-apartheid book This is South Africa:

Afrikaans is the virile language of virile people, physically one of the finest races on earth. It is the language of the great Dutch Reformed Church, of the majority of the parliamentarians, of the rugby fields, of an excellent and influential press, of numerous small theatrical companies, and of a growing literature both in periodical and book form. It is by law entrenched as an equal official language of the country. Anything of an official nature which is publish in English must appear side by side with its Afrikaans equivalent […]. Afrikaans has had to fight for its recognition as a language, and to overcome prejudice, even among some of the Afrikaners themselves, who looked upon it originally at any rate, as a vulgar patois spoken only by illiterates and peasants.[12]

However to black people, Willemse writes, “Afrikaans is known primarily as the language of the Afrikaner. The language of the oppressor.” “Ideologically, he continues, Afrikaans equals Afrikaner rule. It was […] an identifiable element of the everyday repression and inconveniences of black South African’s lives. To scorn Afrikaans [was] to declare your abhorrence of [past] political dispensation.[13]
Further down he says: “Afrikaans is the language of the baas (boss)” and quotes a poem by Motshile wa Ntodi highlighting the demeaning nature of a dialogue between a “baas” and his “boy”.

Morning Baas,
Baas Kleinbaas says,
I must come and tell
Baas that,
Baas Ben’s Baasboy says,
Baas Ben want to see
Baas Kleinbaas if
Baas don’t use
Baas Kleinbaas,
Baas Kleinbaas that,
Baas says
Baas Kleinbaas must tell
Baas Ben’s Baasboy that,
Baas Ben’s Baasboy must tell
Baas Ben that,
Baas says,
If Baas Ben want to see
Baas Kleinbaas,
Baas Ben must come to see
Baas Kleinbaas here.

Motshile wa Ntodi, “South African Dialogue”.

And finally: “Afrikaans is the language of the riot policeman sjambokking students. It is the language of the ill-mannered shop attendant. It is the language of the eviction notice. Afrikaans is the language in which a former minister of police, Jimmy Kruger, said on the death of Black Consciousness activist, Steve Biko: “Dit laat my koud.” (It leaves me cold.)
Given this proven legacy of callousness, inhumanity and brutality, and then certainly not only at the level of language, is it any wonder that black people demonstrated so forcefully their rejection of apartheid and Afrikaans?”[14]

When the Afrikaans Medium Decree got introduced teachers, parents and community groups voiced their discontent to the Bantu Education Department, to no avail. By March 1976, boycotts of classes taught in Afrikaans became widespread. In June the South African Students Movement (SASM), drawn from all the secondary schools, proclaimed a boycott of examinations. On 16 June the students called a mass demonstration of pupils to press for the abolition of the Afrikaans ruling.[15]

Some testimonies

To Hell Afrikaans

– “June 16, 1976. It was a Wednesday morning sunny and bright. The Reverend David Nkwe was standing at the door of St. Paul’s Church on Moroka Street, Soweto, when he saw a column of youngsters come marching by. They looked cheerful enough, he recalls, laughing, singing, and dancing as they went along. One or two recognized him and waved. They were from the Morris Isaacson High School up the road and as someone in the crowd told Reverend Nkwe, they had walked out of their classroom that morning to join a protest demonstration against a government edict that half of all classes in black schools be taught in Afrikaans. For three weeks, in fact, Morris Isaacson students had been travelling from school to school to mobilize others. The plan was for them all to converge on Orlando West, another high school, and then march from there in a single large column to the Orlando Soccer Stadium, where a mass protest meeting would be held.

Map Soweto
Soweto map published in Soweto Speaks, 1981.

Reverend Nkwe watched the singing, dancing column make its way down the rutted street toward Orlando West. They turned into Vilakazi Street and were halfway down it, still about a mile from the school, when they were confronted by a small group of armed policemen. An officer shouted to them to halt. The students jeered and waved their fists. Tear gas was fired, some rocks were thrown, and then the police open fire with live ammunition. A thirteen-year-old boy, Hector Peterson, was the first to fall, shot in the back.”[16]

Hector Pieterson

– From 16 to 18 June Soweto was a battlefield with students being attacked on the ground, in vehicles and in the air. One 16-year-old described how a helicopter opened fire above their heads: “We were scared but did not move. We heard gunshots and I saw Nunu drop and we ran for cover. From where I stood looking back, I saw him crawl on all fours and then drop to the ground”. (Rand Daily Mail, 19.6.76)

There were also several reports of injured children being refused admission to white hospitals because of apartheid regulations, despite the fact that all black hospitals were full.

The police collected many of the dead and injured, and survivors gave horrifying accounts of buildings full of corpses. A 19-year-old student told reporters that “there was blood everywhere. I saw bodies of small children with gaping bullet wounds… Some of the injured were groaning and covered in blood, but the police who came into the room just laughed and kicked those who were lying on the floor. (The Observer, London, 20.6.76)[17]

– A Soweto resident: ‘I was not there on the first day, June 16, during the day when the trouble started; I was at work in Joburg. But I heard kids were being shot. At about eight I took a train back to Soweto and in the train were armed police. That in itself was devastating. As the train came into Soweto there were fires burning left and right.
I got off at Phomolong and nearly got lost. You get used to seeing certain landmarks. They were gone. Buildings were down, cars burning in the street, buses too. Bottle stores were burning. […] It was absolutely devastating – the flames, students running all over the streets, a bus hurtling into a bottle store right in front of me driven by students who had just hijacked it. […]
On June 17 I went home to Soweto at six in the evening with a colleague of mine to keep watch. We spent the night outside Orlando Police Station without them being aware we were there.
I have never seen so many corpses in my life. […] We kept watch there for the whole night and we saw those corpses being taken out of Soweto at two-hourly intervals. It was unbelievable. They would dump all the bodies and then the students arrested during the day, some as young as ten, were made to load the bodies into the mortuary van. A very traumatic experience, but they did it that day. Some of them were wounded themselves, limping, and they were being kicked and sjamboked by police to make them load the corpses. We could hear groans from the heaps of bodies. They were piled on the ground, not covered at all. Fires were still raging and we could hear shots.”[18]

In his book The Mind of South Africa, journalist and writer Allister Sparks revealed that Theuns Swanepoel, the officer in charge of policing the demonstration, felt no remorse about his action. As a matter of fact, Sparks writes “he regretted the police had not been allowed to shoot more protesters at the outset”. And quoting him: “I feel the police should have taken sterner action. When things get to that stage you have no option but to tell your men, ‘Open fire on the evil-doers.’ Law and order must be restored irrespective of what it’s going to cost.”[19]

Soweto Uprising: the costs and legacy

… but on that very day
i saw thousands of children
their eyes all brimming with tears
yet never ceasing in conviction
never teargased to submission
and upon their shoulders
and above their heads
the black gridled bodies
of the fallen bleeding
through gaping bullet punctures
carved in brutal burlesque

Clarence Hamilton, “Breaking the Silence”, 1978.[20]

It began with a peaceful demonstration […] it ended in a bloodbath, a holocaust of teargas, raging fire, bullets, children wounded and dying.[21]
An estimated 10,000 to 20,000 students took part in the protests. The government-appointed Cillie: Report of the Commission of Inquiry into the Riots at Soweto and Elsewhere from 16th June to the 28th February 1977 (1980), found that 575 people died and that 2,389 were injured by the police. However some IDAF sources claimed that “a number of secrete burials were believed to have taken place in Soweto cemeteries, conducted at night by the police”.[22]
The uprising lasted seventeen months before it was quelled in another wave of repressive action, with the government banning twenty-two Black Consciousness organizations. By the end of 1977, Steve Biko who was seen as the figure who had galvanized the students movements – although it was the SASM not the SASO that called for the protests – was dead. His movement was outlawed, thousands of young activists were in prison and 14,000 had fled the country for exile abroad.[23]

detention stats

In an article recently published in the Sunday Times, Jonathan Jansen, outgoing Vice-Chancellor and Rector of the University of the Free State, discussed the legacy of the Soweto Uprising. “The first and most important consequence was the reawakening of activism that has changed student political culture to this day. There is an awareness of the power of the student voice and the significance of student movements. The events of 1976 no doubt hastened the path to democracy.”[24]

The last two years have certainly proved that South African students activism is still alive as shown by the Rhodes Must Fall and Fees Must Fall movements. These are reminders that education and academia have to continue addressing colonial signifiers and their legacies, be they language or the imposing statue of British imperialist Cecil Rhodes (eventually deposed from the University of Cape Town in April 2015). Although the Soweto Uprising and Fees Must Fall are generations apart, the necessity for the latter to exist serves to reaffirm that fair access to education is a democratic right.
Limiting this access to those who have would exacerbate socio-economic and, to some extent, racial distinctions that are historically highly charged in the context of South Africa.

Murder Machine at Ormston House

The concept behind the Murder Machine project currently at Ormston House, Limerick (Ireland) was inspired by thoughts and writings by Irish linguist and activist Pádraig Pearse (1879-1916), one of the leaders of the Easter Rising. In his eponymous pamphlet The Murder Machine (January 1916), Pearse spoke out against the English educational system imposed on Ireland. He saw it as a system devised “for the debasement of Ireland”,  described it as a system doing “violence to the elementary human rights of Irish children”, and compared it to slave education. As such his words echoed those of many African nationalists as they led Independence struggles and identified language as one of the tools used for their oppression. The short-lived Easter Rising, that took place in April 1916 in a bid to free Ireland from English colonization, ended with the execution of its militants. The term “Murder Machine” literally conveys the idea of the murderous nature of colonial systems that would not hesitate to eradicate any form of resistance, in turn leaving the oppressed no choice but to resort to armed struggles.

In 2016, Ireland commemorates the 100th anniversary of the Easter Rising. The same year South Africa is marking the 40th anniversary of the Soweto Uprising. Both were liberation struggles but while in Ireland, English was one of the oppressor’s instruments, for South African freedom fighters, it had come to be accepted as the lesser of two evils, and was adopted as a means for liberation.
Among the material displayed in the Murder Machine exhibition are rare publications including The Child Is Not Dead: Youth Resistance in South Africa 1976-1986 (1986) with Sam Nzima’s image of Hector Pieterson on its cover; Peter Magubane’s book June 16: The Fruit of Fear (1986) with his coverage of the Soweto Uprising; and No Time for Dreams (1981), a collection of protest poetry by James Matthews.

Murder Machine is presented at Ormston House until 17 July 2016.

Ormston House
9-10 Patrick Street
Limerick City
V94 V089

Find out more on Murder Machine and view the photo gallery here.

This study is part of the Making Histories Visible project, University of Central Lancashire.

[1] George Hallett in James Currey, Africa Writes Back: The African Writers Series & The Launch Of African Literature, Oxford: James Currey, 2008, p. XXIX.
[2] Lorna described her experience as a refugee in her article “Home is not where the bed is…”, Genève-Afrique – Journal of the Swiss Society of African Studied, “Les Réfugiés Africains”. Vol. XX, n. 1, 1982, p.p. 39-47. Her story is also included in Marie-Noëlle Anderson, Couleurs d’Exil. Lausanne: Editions de l’Aire, 1992, pp. 109-126.
[3] Published in Exiles Within. An Anthology of Poetry. Johannesburg: Writers Forum, 1986, p. 63.
[4] IDAF, Apartheid – The Facts. London: The International Defence and Aid Fund, 1983, p.90.
[5] Jill Johnson and Peter Magubane, Soweto Speaks. London: Wildwood House Limited, 1981, p. 50.
[6] Leslie Blackwell and Henry John May, This is South Africa. Pietermaritzburg, Shuter & Shooter, 1947, p. 131.
[7] Ibid. p. 135.
[8] Jill Johnson and Peter Magubane, Soweto Speaks. Op. cit., pp. 56-57.
[9] Steve Biko, I Write What I Like. A Selection of Writings edited by Aelred Stubbs C.R. London: Heinemann, 1978, p. 100.
[10] Ibid., p. 4.
[11] In David Bunn and Jane Taylor (eds.), From South Africa: New Writing, Photographs and Art. A special issue of TriQuaterly magazine. Evanston, Il., Northwestern University, 1987, p. 238.
[12] Leslie Blackwell and Henry John May, This is South Africa. Op. cit., p. 14-15.
[13] Hein Willemse, “The Black Afrikaans writer: A Continuing Dichotomy”. In David Bunn and Jane Taylor (eds.), From South Africa: New Writing, Photographs and Art. Op. cit., p. 237.
[14] Ibid., p. 240
[15] IDAF, Children Under Apartheid. London: The International Defence and Aid Fund, 1980 , p. 95.
[16] Allister Sparks, The Mind of South Africa. New York: First Ballantine Books Edition, 1991, p. 302.
[17] IDAF, Children Under Apartheid. Op. cit., pp. 95-96.
[18] Jill Johnson and Peter Magubane, Soweto Speaks. Op. cit., pp. 61-62.
[19] Allister Sparks, The Mind of South Africa. Op. cit., p. 343.
[20] Genève-Afrique – Journal of the Swiss Society of African Studied. Vol. 18, n. 2, 1980, p. 112.
[21] Jill Johnson and Peter Magubane, Soweto Speaks. Op. cit., p. 61.
[22] IDAF, Children Under Apartheid, p. 96.
[23] Allister Sparks, The Mind of South Africa. Op. cit., pp. 302-303.
[24] Jonathan Jansen, “The true legacy of Soweto ’76 – and some of its abiding myths”, Sunday Times – Opinion & Analysis, Sunday 12 June 2016.


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