Together with the personal memories on the wall, the reconstruction of the day's events comes mainly from eyewitness accounts of students who participated, journalists who were on the scene, as well as the police reports on the events.
Much of this information is gratefully sourced from the website of sahistory.org.za. If you are aware of any factual errors, or wish to add a new perspcective, please drop us a note.
Not all the children who were to participate in the march on June 16 knew about it on the morning of the 16th. For many it was an ordinary school day. But, by this time, students were feeling very frustrated and dissatisfied with the Bantu education system in general and the introduction of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction. It was exam time for the senior students and many were scared that they would fail the exams if they would have to write in Afrikaans.
Nonetheless the march that was planned by the Action Committee of the Soweto Students Representative Council (SSRC) was well organised and was to be conducted in a peaceful way. The leaders of the original march, mainly came from two high schools, Naledi High in Naledi and Morris Isaacson in Mofolo.
Sfiso Ndlovo argues, however, that the main centre of organisational activity was Phefeni Junior Secondary, close to Vilakazi Street in Orlando. Phefeni was certainly close to the railway station from which many students got off their trains to join the march. The plan was that students from Naledi High were to march from their direction and pick up students from the schools on their way.
The Morris Isaacson students were to march from their school doing the same until they met at a central point where they would proceed peacefully together to the Orlando Stadium. Other schools also were part of the original plan but it is not clear that the students at all those schools were fully aware of the march.
The first students to gather together were at Naledi High. The mood was high spirited and jovial. At assembly the principal gave support to the children and wished them good luck. The first chairperson of the Action Committee, Tepello Motopanyane addressed them and informed them that discipline and a peaceful march were to be the order of the day.
Meanwhile, at Morris Isaacson students also gathered. They were also addressed by one of the leaders of the Action Committee, Tsietsi Mashinini, and then set out. On the way they passed by other schools, where some were waiting and those who were not were recruited on the spot to join.
"We were singing and it was jovial, the mood, exciting and with the placards we started going." - Dan Moyane Morris Isaacson High School
"The first time we heard of it was during our short break. Our leaders informed the principal that students from Morris Isaacson were marching. We then joined one of the groups and marched." - Sam Khosa Ibhongo secondary School
In the end there were 11 columns of students marching to Orlando Stadium to meet at the central point of "Uncle Toms" Municipal hall. Before this point, there had been some minor skirmishes with police but it was here that police stopped them, barricading their path. Other schools had been stopped by the police earlier on and had dispersed but managed to join later. It is hard to determine how many students there were, estimates range from 1 000 to 10 000.
The march was halted and some people helped Tietsi Mashinini climb up onto a tractor so that everyone could see him when he addressed the crowd:
Brothers and Sisters, I appeal to you-keep calm and cool. We have just
received a report that the police are coming. Don't taunt them, don't do anything
to them. Be cool and calm. We are not fighting."
It was a tense moment for both the police and the students. Police reports stated that the situation was explosive and they retreated to await further reinforcements.
The students carried on marching until they got to what is now Hector Petersen Square, close to Orlando High School. The march came to a halt again. Different reports of what actually started the shooting have been put forward.
"Despite the tense atmosphere the students remained calm and well ordered. Suddenly a white policeman lobbed a teargas canister into the front of the crowd. People ran out of the smoke dazed and coughing. The crowd retreated slightly but remained facing the police, waving placards and singing.
A white policeman drew his revolver. Black journalists standing by the police heard a shot: "Look at him. He's going to shoot at the kids".
A single shot ran out. There was a split seconds silence and pandemonium broke out.
Children screamed. More shots were fired. At least four students fell and others ran screaming in all directions."
Brooks & Brickhill Whirlwind before the storm, 1980
After the first massacre, the students fled in different directions. Anger at the senseless killings inspired retaliatory action. West Rand Administrative Buildings (WRAB) vehicles and buildings were set alight and burned to the ground, a white WRAB official was pulled out of his car and beaten to death, bottlestores were burned and looted. Other encounters with the police occurred where more students were killed especially in the vicinity of the Regina Mhundi church in Orlando and the Esso garage in Chiawelo. As students were stopped by the police in one area they moved their protest action to others. By the end of the day most of Soweto, including Diepkloof, which was relatively quiet during the morning, had felt the impact of the protest. For the students at some schools, this was the first they heard or saw. Schools were closed early at about 12:00 and many students walked out of school to a township on fire.
"It was past twelve, past twelve to one. Sister Joseph allowed us to go home, because now it was chaos around. So when we went home we could see that now cars were burning, especially the company cars, those from town, those owned by whites".
As more students were let out of school they joined those protesters that were closest to them. Some accounts see the events of the afternoon to be chaos or a "free for all" especially on the basis that bottlestores and beerhalls were raided and looted. The apartheid press certainly tried to portray it that way. It was clear that the events of the afternoon were not organised and an atmosphere of panic and defiance existed. However, others argue that the students attacked targets for political reasons and were disciplined in who and what they attacked. A white university student who was sympathetic was actually taken to safety by the schoolchildren themselves. One black owned business was attacked, the shop of Richard Maponya but this was deliberate. Maponya was a wealthy businessman who was despised by many people because "he exploits us and is a sell out".
There probably was an element of free for all in the looting of bottlestores. Many students came home with booze and a lot of people enjoyed the results of the plunder. But people had long seen alcohol as a method used by the apartheid government to try and make black people apathetic. Most of the beerhalls were built by the municipality. People were shouting "less liquor, better education". There were probably different motivations at play in the raids of the bottlestores. In any political protest there are those that are more politically motivated and disciplined than others, to see it as one or the other is to misunderstand the nature of political mass action.
Fires continued blazing into the night. At 21:00 Armoured Police cars later known as Hippos started moving into Soweto. Official figures were that 23 people had been killed, but some reports estimated that it was at least 200. It is hard to know how many people had been killed because of police efforts to cover up the number of people who died.