On June 16, it’ll be 42 years since South African policemen gunned down scores of schoolchildren in the ‘Soweto Uprising’. It was a day that shocked the world and will be forever seared into the mind of 83-year-old journalist Enoch Duma.
His face contorts slightly as he, slowly, but painfully, returns through the murky mist of 42 years. His hands tremble with emotion as he relives horrific images lodged in the corners of his mind. The birds singing in the blue sky over the idyllic garden of his family home in Roodepoort, Johannesburg, contrasting with the moody, mean, streets of Soweto of yore.
Eightythree-year-old Enoch Duma lived the slaughter of scores of schoolchildren on that fateful winter’s day in Soweto in 1976. It was his job to be there as a reporter for a Johannesburg newspaper and he had his own car. He knew serious trouble was building. Many of the schoolchildren involved used to call him “Bra E” and held him in high esteem.
“I just knew the previous night the people were uneasy as if something was going to happen, some people didn’t go to work. You had people like Tsietsi Mashinini, Seth Mazibuko and other student leaders coming to your house. I was always ahead of what was happening,” recalls Duma.
On the morning of June 16, Duma was out driving through the tense streets of Soweto and saw a big crowd approaching.
“They ran to my car. Tsietse said ‘hey! Soweto is burning – it is bad, it is very bad, just stay ahead of things. Hide if you can hide because there is going to be trouble tonight. If the police shoot we are going to answer with petrol bombs’. This was something new in Soweto.”
The mood turned ugly when news filtered through the crowd in Orlando that police had shot dead a young student, Hector Pieterson – a bloody killing captured for eternity by the famous photograph by Sam Nzima that he smuggled out through police lines to make the front pages everywhere from New York to Sydney the next day.
“When people heard it was Hector they were very angry. They armed themselves with Molotov Cocktails and started throwing these petrol bombs recklessly. They were just mad,” says Duma.
The birds outside tweet, incongruously, as Duma’s face darkens with the deepening story.
“I can still see the madness in their faces and their anger. They didn’t know what to do,” he says.
“I saw a burning body thrown into a dustbin. I couldn’t stand it I had to drive through. There were moments when I thought I wasn’t going to make it. It was difficult to see where the students were coming from. They were coming out of buildings with Molotov Cocktails and some carried dustbin lids as shields. Among the leaders were very young people. The real fighters were the little girls – they were ready to die.”
Among them, Susan Shabangu who spent months on the run in the clampdown that followed; like many of the survivors, she escaped into exile to fight the struggle and ended up as her country’s mining and social development minister.
It was a horrific chapter of a rich career that saw Duma, the son of a Baptist minister, born in Durban in KwaZulu-Natal, work his way from reporting the courts in his hometown to working on a national newspaper. He joined The Post in Durban through a friend, who was a reporter on the paper, called Duke Ncobo.
“The newspaper wanted a young cub reporter and suggested I should write two stories for the editor. He read them and looked at me and read them and looked at me and said ‘did you write this or did someone write this for you?’ I said ‘no’. He said ‘go to Mr Ncobo’, who said ‘I think the editor likes you’!”
His first arrest came in bizarre fashion. Ncobo invited the young Duma to a party in a block of flats in downtown Durban belonging to the leading lights of the African National Congress including Fatima Meer and journalist GR Naidoo.
An elderly woman living below called the police complaining of the noise; the police, who suspected the party was a front for a political meeting among people of color, encouraged her to press charge. They arrested 27 partygoers including Duma and threw them in the cells.
The court case turned into farce. The elderly lady, in her 70s, complained that the partygoers had banged the floor above her as they danced. In court, the judge asked the lady to demonstrate the dance. There were titters in court as ushers cleared the chairs away and the lady did a high-stepping dance. The judge ruled she hadn’t made sufficient noise to convince him, yet Duma and his colleagues were held to have been a public nuisance.
Duma secured a job on the City Post, amid the bright lights and jazz of 1950s Johannesburg and arrived at Park Station with nothing but a suitcase. A van from the newspaper picked him up to take him to the newsroom buzzing with young journalists.
“You must pretend to be one of them, otherwise they will give you a hard time,” chirped the driver.
These were colorful and chaotic times for young black journalists at the City Post. A regular caller with stories was a young and vivacious social worker called Winnie Mandela.
“Winnie Mandela, she was very young used to come to the office and was very friendly with reporters. The gangsters respected Winnie,” says Duma.
Gangsters and guns were another part of newsroom life at the City Post. Gangs ruled many of the Johannesburg streets in the 1950s – the Spoilers, the Americans and the Msomi gang.
Their leaders used to waltz in off the street with wide-brimmed hats and long fine coats looking more Chicago than sub-Saharan Africa. Often, they carried small “baby brown” pistols, sometimes concealed in a bandage, to intimidate journalists for a number of sins.
It could be to force them to stay away from their girlfriends or stop writing about them or start writing about them. Often a gun up the nose proved mightier than the pen, until one day.
“One day, they came and they found the deputy editor having a meeting with the reporters. The gangsters introduced themselves and the deputy editor Henk Margolis, an American brought in to work on the paper, says: ‘Gentlemen, can I help you?’
“They pointed a gun at him, Henk noticed this and was not scared. ‘If you think you can intimidate me you are wrong, I was born in Chicago, so I have not time for small fry’. That day we thought there was going to be a showdown. Henk grabbed hold of the leader and pushed him outside. That was the last time the gangs came to the office,” says Duma with a smile.
It turned out that gangsters with police uniforms on proved to be Duma’s downfall. He was arrested numerous times and ended up spending nine months in prison. He went into exile in the United States (US) and with his wife of 56 years, Kitty, he was a prime mover in the divestment campaign – encouraging US firms to pull out of South Africa – that helped usher in the end of apartheid.
A system that stoked the fiery horror of June 16 that people who were there will never forget.