June 16, 2016 is the 40th anniversary of the Soweto Uprising, which took place in 1976.
To commemorate this important date, Donald Emby has shared an excerpt from his book Soweto Burning, part factual history and part fictional novel, published in 2014.
About the book
In the 1950s a routine underground inspection in a goldmine turns into a horrifying experience for a South African mining engineer.
In the 1970s a young woman decides to hike the Fish River Canyon in Namibia; and an American Catholic priest journeys to Soweto to care for abused women and children.
These seemingly unrelated strands form the foundation of a family’s journey to a day that would forever change them – and the country in which they live. Wednesday 16 June, 1976, the day on which highschool pupils in Soweto organised a riot to protest against the use of Afrikaans as a medium of education, marked a clear watershed for South Africa.
Soweto Burning is part factual history and part fictional novel, portrays the parallel journey of a family and a country to a crescendo that rocked the world. It starkly illustrates how this dramatic turning point, and the policy of racial segregation through apartheid, affected one white family and the country as a whole; how our actions impact on others, and how even one courageous decision can change countless lives.
About the author
Donald Emby was born in 1949 in Durban, South Africa. He studied medicine at Wits University, graduating in 1973. Much of his clinical training was at Baragwanath Hospital. He retired from full time radiological practice in 2012, having contributed more than 20 articles to medical literature; and turned his hand to non-medical writing.
Extracts from Part 2 of Soweto Burning: Wednesdays Children
The first encounter between the protesting school children and the police.
At 8:30 a.m. Col Kleingeld issued revolvers and live ammunition to his men, and led the patrol that set out from the Orlando Police Station. He had 48 policemen in his group, 40 of whom were black. His patrol drove past the still empty Orlando Stadium and encountered the vanguard of the marchers as they approached the old Orlando West Bridge.
The organisers of the march had cautioned the students to remain calm if they encountered police patrols, and not to act in ways that might be construed as contrary to the peaceful nature of the gathering. But with emotions running high, a small group of students started throwing stones at the police. Others rapidly joined in as the pent-up aggression of the marchers rapidly overtook the initial mood of peaceful defiance.
A stand-off ensued, with a distance of approximately 50 metres separating the two sides. Col Kleingeld was hit on the thigh, and the windscreen of his vehicle was shattered by the barrage of stones. In response he threw three teargas canisters at the crowd but far from dispersing them, this only acted to further incense the students. Cupping his hands to his mouth, he shouted to the students to disperse, but without a loudhailer, his voice was lost in the din and commotion.
With the teargas having had no effect in dispersing the marchers, the prudent response from the police would have been to withdraw the patrol, wait for backup and monitor the behaviour of the crowd from a safe distance. It would have been easy to call in helicopters for this purpose. This was, after all, only a throng of school children who carried no firearms, hand grenades or modern armaments of any kind. Their only weapons, other than stones, were sticks and the occasional knife.
Kleingeld, however, refused to back off believing, without any evidence other than the stone-throwing to support his conviction, that the intention of the march was to purposefully damage property and to endanger lives. In retrospect, one could perhaps try to equate the situation at that point with a monumental misunderstanding; a classic scenario of failed communication on a gigantic scale. If there had, at all, been a window of opportunity, however brief, for communication between the police patrol and the students, that window was, as a result of Kleingeld’s intransigence, not only closed but barred and barricaded, its glass panes shattered and boarded up so that any ray of hope had been totally obliterated by the hatred and distrust inherent at the time. In the prevailing climate of polarisation, communication was, if truth be told, never destined to see even a glimmer of the light of day.
During the course of the day, several hundred children sought sanctuary within the Regina Mundi Church.
With the teargas assault failing to drive the crowd of students out of the church, a tense, momentary stand-off followed.
Then the unthinkable happened.
With guns blazing, the police stormed the entrance to the church, firing into the narrow gap between the students’ heads and the top of the doorway. The panicking students in their path tried to flee deeper into the church, but only succeeded in tripping over, and trampling, each other. As the police advanced, their firing became more indiscriminate. Bullets smashed into, and ricocheted off, the marble altar, leaving the once smooth marble cracked and, in places, shattered. Rows of bullet holes tore through the ceiling. Not even the figure of Christ on the Cross in the alcove above the altar was spared from the demonic frenzy of gunfire that defiled the holy sanctuary.
Nicole, ducking down close to the altar, watched in speechless horror as the callous act of disrespect for the time-honoured tradition of the sanctity of the church unfolded before her. Splinters of marble from the altar became imbedded in her arms and legs, although she barely felt the pain or noticed the blood that was running down her limbs.
As she looked across the central aisle towards the mayhem, she saw a student kneeling beside one of the pews, pull a bottle from under his school blazer. It was filled with amber liquid and a piece of white rag protruded from the neck. Realising the insane stupidity of his desperate act, she launched herself at the student. The double risk of further provoking the police, and the disastrous consequences of a fire in the crowded, confined space of the church, were too terrible to contemplate.
But before she could reach him, a second student struck a match and lit the petrol-soaked fuse. As the teenager holding the flaming bottle stood up and raised his arm to throw the fire bomb towards the main entrance where the police were concentrated, she lunged at him, catching hold of his wrist before he could release the missile.
Forcing his arm backwards, she caused him to lose his balance. As he fell, his grip loosened and she wrenched the bottle with its deadly contents from his grasp.
But Nicole’s victory came at a horrifying price. As she jerked the bottle from the student’s hand, part of its flaming content splashed into her face. In an instant her hair was on fire. She turned desperately towards the buckets of water on the marble altar but only one remained standing following the destruction caused by the police gunfire. A sea of frightened children blocked her way. As she struggled to reach the life-saving coolness of the water, searing pain enveloped the right side of her face, and the unmistakable smell of burning flesh permeated her nostrils as the petrol-driven flames scorched her cheek and forehead, devouring her right ear and the hair and flesh of her right eyebrow. Without hesitation she plunged her head into the bucket. After a few seconds, she lifted her head and with water streaming down her face, plunged her burning right hand, still clutching the flaming Molotov cocktail, into the container. When the flames died away she released the bottle, and as she withdrew her hand from the water she was suddenly aware of a new, heart-stopping pain. Looking down, she saw to her horror that the skin from the palm of her hand had remained behind, burnt onto the glass surface of the bottle in the bucket.