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Last Updated: Tuesday, 13 June 2006, 15:33 GMT 16:33 UK
Soweto 1976: A schoolboy's memories
Milton (left) and his brother Modise
Milton (left) was at school in Soweto when the protests began
BBC Africa bureaux editor Milton Nkosi was a schoolboy in Soweto at the time of the uprising of 16 June 1976. Here he recalls what it was like being in the middle of events that would change South Africa.

It was one of the coldest winters in South Africa's history, and I was only 10 years old.

It seemed like an ordinary Wednesday morning when I went to Belle Higher Primary School in Soweto's Orlando West neighbourhood.

The singing at the morning assembly was as beautiful as ever, the teachers were eager to teach and we, the learners, were focused on our mid-term examinations.

Then suddenly, in the middle of Mrs Mofokeng's lesson, we heard her voice being drowned by a crowd singing outside the school yard.

We lost concentration as we began to look through the windows. I saw thousands of high school students dressed in different school uniforms singing and chanting anti-apartheid songs and slogans.

We walked out of the classroom to investigate, only to find that the police had already drawn a cordon across the road next to Uncle Tom's community hall, to prevent the marchers from going further.


On the placards I read slogans such as: "No to Afrikaans", "Black Power", "No to the language of the oppressor", "Down with Afrikaans".

Milton returns to his old school
Why did so many have to die, Milton still wonders

Our teachers told us to get back into class and stay inside. Some of the pupils listened to the teachers but others decided to join the protest.

I went inside the classroom but could not stay for long, so I left to witness history unfolding right before my eyes outside.

There was something different about the mood of the police: it was tense and they had guns at the ready, as if they were aiming at a target in a shooting range.

I noticed that there were more white policemen than usual.

As the crowd grew bigger, the singing also grew louder. The police dogs were barking, police vans were revving higher and higher as they reinforced the cordon.


For the first time in my life I saw teargas canisters, armoured personnel carriers (locally known as Hippos) and real live ammunition rifles at close range.

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There was a certain degree of excitement in the air, because the bystanders were making fun of the ears of some of the policemen. Some of them had really big ugly ears!

Then it all rose in a crescendo when the marchers did not disperse in "two minutes" as a police officer had ordered through a loud hailer.

I heard gunshots, people screaming and I looked right up into the sky as a teargas canister was flying high up followed by a white trail of smoke.

I choked and began coughing uncontrollably, tears running down my cold cheeks.

Students were scattered across Orlando West as they ran for cover. The police let their dogs loose on us.

I ran into Mr Khumalo's shop which was a block away from our school. There wasn't enough room to hide so I decided to get out and run towards our home.


At that point students were stoning delivery vehicles, police cars and the looters were at work too! It was chaos! I was scared, very scared.

Hector Peterson being carried
Hector Peterson became a symbol of the anti-apartheid struggle
In the ensuing confusion I remembered to look for my younger brother, Mfanasibili Nkosi, who was at the nearby Thloreng Lower Primary school.

Unfortunately the heart of the battle was smack between the two schools, and I couldn't cross the busy Pela Street to get to the Lower Primary.

On my third attempt to cross the main road, I came across one of our neighbours, Mbuyisa Makhubu, who was carrying a schoolboy in his arms.

The boy was bleeding and Mbuyisa was shouting repeatedly in English: "Students it's enough! It's enough students!"

He said in one sentence to me, "Where are you going? Go home sonny!"

I turned around and ran back towards my home. On the way, the ground was littered with school shoes, bags, broken glass, stones and debris.

I saw a white Volkswagen Kombi van being stoned and crashing into the perimeter wall around Uncle Tom's hall.

The van had frozen processed meats inside, and people ran to loot the goods.

Police cars were driving street by street looking for student leaders. The township was full of burning tyres barricading the roads.

By late afternoon it turned out that my brother was safe at a friend's house and that the boy on Mbuyisa's arms was called Hector Peterson and that he died from gun shot wounds.

Thirty years on, as I recall one of the most significant anti-apartheid events, I wonder why it had to be so painful. Why did so many people have to die?

South Africa has come a long way and the road ahead seems to be brighter than it's ever been, amid the challenges.

The struggles of the 21st century are to attain economic freedom and to combat HIV and Aids.

I hope South Africans can use the same amount of zeal or more in fighting HIV/Aids as they did in fighting the evil system of racial segregation known as apartheid.

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