Stepping In To Make History: Interview with Selby Semela, part one

Adelaide Steedley interviews Selby Semela and Barney Mokgatle, two leaders of the Soweto Uprising: What can we learn about our own lives from ordinary people who became heroic in theirs?

There are times in history, as in life, when events seem unfair, chaotic, surreal, even sublime.  While we could ponder them all day, at some point, history and lives must be lived. At what point does a person decide to step in?  What can we learn about choosing to step into pivotal moments in history from those people who did?  Not that they did anything historic at the time, they were doing what they thought had to be done.  It only became part of History afterwards.

I sat with Selby Semela and Barney Mogkatle, two high school students in Soweto in 1976, to learn more about the infamous days that they – aided by the horrific response of the South African Police force – created, which so profoundly shifted the momentum of the Struggle in South Africa.  The day they stopped pondering events happening to them, and stepped in.

A Soweto classroom in 1976

In 1974, the South African education department announced that all modes of instruction would be in Afrikaans.  It was an ingenious measure because while appearing nationalistic and business-oriented, the rule’s impact on the black educational experience was more confusion, humiliation, and ultimately, mass resistance.  In that way, it was ingenious, just not in the ways intended by its overseers.  The rule was implemented in phases, incorporating older grades year by year.  Students had begun organizing in Soweto, and the new rule added fuel to that fire.  Selby and Barney, 18 and 22 respectively, with their friend Tsietsi Mashinini, 22, watched the encroaching shift with seething anger and agitation.

BD: Where were you in 1976? How did you know each other?

BM:  We both knew Tsietsi, he was the leader of the Soweto Student Representative Council (SSRC).  We were all at Morris Isaacson High School.  Tsietsi and I were both Matrics.  I was 22 because I had switched schools, and had been a bit rebellious.

SS: I was 18 in grade 11.

BD: So what was going on?

BM:  When they started making students learn in Afrikaans, we thought if we agree to this, we will be oppressed mentally, which was worse than being bound and chained.  You were no longer who you were.  If you were bound and chained, at least you remembered who you were.  Roots define where you are going because you know where you came from.  Your kids would not know.  We felt we had to stop them before they got to the high school- the following year we were anticipating that.

SS:  We began to read more about Black Consciousness.  I mean, the things our girlfriends were doing to make themselves look white, it was a shame.  The Black Consciousness Movement was a philosophy of blackness, knowing yourself.   Meetings of the South African Student Organization [founded in 1969, with Steve Biko as its founding president] and the SSRC were already going on.  We were inspired by the movement.

BM: We were aware of the same thing going on in the United States – we felt if they could rise up with Black Power in that great big country, we could too. We called the US the Python – it’s threat of violence was more like a slow squeezing, and we called South Africa the Cobra, it’s violence was a quick, spitting bite – you never knew when it might strike. We may have been surrounded by violence, and oppression and poverty. But we said God did not make a mistake to make us black.

“The most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor, is the mind of the oppressed.” Steve Biko, I Write What I Like, 1978

BD: How did things start to intensify? How did the idea of a march come on?

BM: It happened over about a month, the planning.  We had been having meetings with all the other schools, sharing ideas and frustration.  We spoke to the teachers about planning a march to hand over a petition to the Vorster police station (now Johannesburg central police station).  It was secret, only the heads of schools we trusted were included.  They gave us motivation and guidelines from the Black Peoples’ Convention [founded as an offshoot of the BCM in 1972].

SS:  Our principal had the idea. It would be more harmful if the teachers protested [they were expected to teach in Afrikaans], but if the students protested, it would be difficult for the system to hold them accountable for a peaceful student march.  No one could blame the teachers.

BM: The teachers were happy with it, they said we must always proclaim it would be a peaceful march.  They said not to go to our parents – our parents grew up with this [oppression], they didn’t want us killed for something political.  Not even all the teachers knew.

Selby stands in front of the principal's office at Morris Isaacson School, where the idea for the march was born and planning took place.

Selby stands in front of the principal’s office at Morris Isaacson School, where the idea for the march was born and planning took place.

SS:  Yes, our parents didn’t know. They couldn’t know, or they would never have let us go ahead.

BD: What was the plan?

BM:  After the morning assembly before going to class, leaders were to go to the front and explain we were marching from the school now, and taking a petition against Afrikaans instruction to Orlando Stadium, where we were going to join up with the other schools, and the petition would be delivered to John Vorster (the police station).

SS: We would assemble at Orlando Stadium for speeches, and then go back to school.  We would march over again, until we got Afrikaans out of the classroom.  That was our goal.

BD: What happened to you that day?  Were you afraid?

BM: It was a Wednesday, we just picked it because it was about a month away from when we started planning.   And no, we weren’t afraid, we weren’t expecting violence! We were excited, as it was the first time students would be marching.  That morning, Tsietsi spoke at the assembly. We sang, and we left.

SS: We headed down Mahalefele Street, towards Orlando Stadium.  As people began to see what was going on, they started streaming in from the side streets to join, so the crowd was getting bigger and bigger very fast.  We were singing, and then as the street turned down towards the valley, we saw the white casspirs rolling down along the highways, across the other side of the hill towards us.

BM:  I think someone, a teacher or somebody, must have called the police from the school, they (the police) came so fast.  There’s no way they could have had such a well-organized response that fast if they didn’t know. The helicopters started buzzing overhead to figure out which way we were going, to try to stop us.

SS: We kept marching down the hill, and the police built a block across the road at the bottom of the hill.  They didn’t do anything for a long time, we saw them just standing there.  One of them with a bullhorn says for us to stop marching and disperse immediately or they will start shooting in two minutes.  I don’t know why he even said that – they started shooting right away.  At first we thought it was blanks or just shooting in the air, but when people started screaming and falling, we realized then and there that they were using actual bullets.  Everyone started running. Many, many people got shot as they were running away [official figures stand at 176 deaths over the two-day riot].  As the day went on, those of us who organized the march, we were devastated, we felt horrible.  What had we done? People had died. That was not the plan.

BM: where I was, the police started shooting from behind because they had to follow us marching, because they did not know which way we were headed.

At the beginning, students were jubilant and excited, as much about missing a day of school as sending a message.

At the beginning, students were jubilant and excited, as much about missing a day of school as sending a message.

BD: What was the most important thing you think you did, what was your most important role?

BM: Well, I was one of the few who was old enough to drive and I had a car, so I drove the leaders from meeting to meeting.  They depended on me to get them from place to place.  Without that, I think they could not have organized, it was of course before cellphones.  Getting a car, getting the license sorted, I think I was the engineer of organizing that – we could not move without that.

SS: well, honestly, I didn’t do anything before 16 June except go to meetings.  My piece started on 16 June, in response to the violence and the Stay Away campaign.  We made up the Suicide Squad, there were nine of us, and we became the enforcing arm of the SSRC (laughs). I was a very proud member.  A friend of Barney’s, he’d been trained in petrol bombs or something in Mozambique.  It was something else. It was crazy.

BD: What’s that? What happened next?

BM:  We spent the next few weeks in hiding.  The police found out who we were and were looking for us, harassing our families constantly.  Because of the police harassment, the BCM and other organizations had proposed a Stay-Away campaign to protest the police violence, but the adults were not participating- they needed their jobs, they needed to go to work, so the campaign was not working. We decided to make it impossible for them to go to work, so we organized what we called the Suicide Squad.

SS: We decided to blow up the logistics of getting to work.  We blew up train stations, and signal posts. I think they [the parents] knew what we were doing, it gave them the excuse to stay away from work.  But the police stepped up their search for us. It was very bad.

BD: At what point- how did you decide to leave South Africa? How did you get out?

SS:  The police were offering a R500 reward for information about where we were.  Then, that was a couple of month’s salary, it was a lot of money and we understood that.  Also, our pictures were in the papers. Eventually, we were told that we should leave the country, we were endangering ourselves, and our family.

BM: Selby had been shot at the march, but when he went to hospital, the police made him nervous and he left.  Tsietsi had decided he had to leave, he was getting the most harassment.  We realized that even if he left, the police could capture us and get all the information they needed from us, and his exile would be wasted.  We all agreed to exile together. I did not want to exile.  I did not know what the exile world would be like…

SS: Over those weeks, I mean, this thing had gotten so much bigger than any of us, than any of us had imagined.  It had taken on a life of its own.  Adults talked to us and they raised money to arrange for flights out from Botswana, to Europe, Amsterdam.  As a decoy, we had the papers report that we had already left the country. We then drove in the middle of the night north to Botswana.  The driver dropped us in a field just before the border crossing, and was supposed to pick us up on the other side.  We must have walked for three or four hours in the pitch black, our shoes and clothes tearing on the bush, and feet bloody. We were freezing, we were lost and we were sure that we were going to die.  The driver found us eventually and we made it to Gabarone.

BM: Our sponsor, the Council of Churches, had organized flights to Amsterdam.  From Gabarone, we flew to London through Lusaka.  In London, we were stalled in Gatwick because we did not have visas.  A friend of ours, John Blair, of London television, whom we had met during his coverage in Soweto contacted the media, and the next thing we know, the media were all around us in Gatwick. We were the first students involved with the uprising to make it out of South Africa and it caused a very big stir.

SS: That picture was taken at the airport.  We wanted to show the South African police that we had made it out of South Africa.  And our families.

BD: What do you think about what you did, to pull off one of the seminal turning points in history? What does it mean?

BM: Looking back, we believed that we are never free unless we are mentally free.  The freedom we had in 1976 was mental and conscious freedom, freeing ourselves in how we think. The freedom we got in 1994 was the power to vote, and some more economic freedom. But today, when people vote, do they understand? A vote today is based on personalities, not from a sense of real freedom and democracy. Is the person you’re voting for giving you the right sense of freedom, or enriching themselves?  They told the people that we were free because of Mandela, when in fact Mandela was free because of themtheir resistance. I mean, how do you understand freedom? Youth today don’t view themselves as liberators, they are more concerned about individualism, individual freedom, not the collective. There’s still a lot of work to do to liberate black people.

SS: For me, it was to actually see a contribution amount to something, to do things that were unthinkable. You don’t realize how much power you have until you use it. Before [16 June], we were just high school students taking it. I grew up with many questions. I was living in a world that didn’t make sense. I had no idea what I wanted to become, because I didn’t see where I belonged. That was very scary. Then, after the uprising, we weren’t alone. They [organizations or people] came to help us, but none of them were in a position to take on the South African government. That was the biggest disappointment of my life.

BD: What do your children think of what you did? How did it affect their lives?

BM: My kids are proud (laughs), one is a teacher, building a better foundation through education, helping kids understand themselves for tomorrow.

SS: We took them to meetings, conferences, they were like sponges.  One of my sons, Naledi, when he graduated from (Colgate) university, he received a new “Voice of Conscience” Award in race relations in 2010.  The university president said things about him, we were shocked. I am very proud of my sons.

“In time, we shall be in a position to bestow on South Africa the greatest possible gift – a more human face.” Steve Biko, I Write What I Like (1978).

Barney in front of the status of his friend and classmate, which now stands in front of the interpretation centre in Soweto.

Barney in front of the status of his friend and classmate, which now stands in front of the interpretation centre in Soweto.

Life Turns Out

Both Selby and Barney lived as exiles, traveling the world speaking out against the apartheid regime, mobilizing actions around strategies such as divestiture, dockside strikes and a maintained media spotlight. Barney returned to South Africa in 1993 and now lives in Alexandra. He enjoys speaking of his experiences to youth organizations. Selby lives near Washington, and has recently begun returning on a regular basis.  Tsietsi died in Guinea in 1990; a statue of him stands at the Morris Isaacson School.

The famous picture of the trio, splashed triumphantly all over the world, is embossed on the June 16 memorial wall across from the high school.  Their giddy jubilation still shines through.

What will it take

Not many of us can claim to have the self-confidence, the sense of urgency, and the courage which Selby, Barney and Tsietsi showed when they stepped in during those pivotal months in 1976, and after.  But understanding how they stepped forward – ordinary students who created extraordinary moments – we can learn more about our potential to claim those moments ourselves, and correct the course of our own histories, our communities, or our nation. If we can find what it takes to grasp those moments, and not be intimidated by them, we can bend the arc of history, which while it may be long, bends towards justice.


 Interviews with Selby Semela and Barney Mogkatle, by Adelaide Steedley.

Selby speaks at schools and colleges in South Africa and the US, telling stories of activism and resistance, and making history, here and there.

Selby speaks at schools and colleges in South Africa and the US, telling stories of activism and resistance, and making history, here and there.

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