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By tshwanetalks.com

Sandy Lebese
Sandy Lebese

June 1976: A blow-by-blow account of Mamelodi student activist sandy lebese who ended up on Robben Island Prison

By Sandy Lebese

It was 48 years ago on Wednesday, 16 June 1976 when Soweto students decided to march against the system of Bantu Education and the use of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction in their classrooms.

Their plan was to march to the Orlando Stadium where they would hand over a memorandum of grievances against Bantu Education and the use of Afrikaans to the then apartheid government authorities, and the march was meant to be peaceful.

But the apartheid state security forces were intent on stopping the march at all costs and intercepted the students on their way to the stadium.

After being ordered by the security forces to abandon the march and disperse immediately, the students refused to obey the command and resolved to march on.

In response to the students’ defiance of their order, the security forces used teargas, rubber bullets and live ammunition to disperse them, resulting in many students being killed, maimed and injured in the process.

The event came to be known as the 1976 Soweto June 16 Massacre, and nearly brought the apartheid government to its knees as the country became ungovernable from that day, with riots and protests spreading all over the country as students expressed their anger about the massacre.

The 1976 students’ uprisings marked a decisive turning point in the history of South Africa.

Several students of Vlakfontein Technical High School in Mamelodi West, me included, met to discuss the Soweto June 16 massacre on Friday 18 June 1976, which was two days after the catastrophic event.

Our political militancy as students was mainly influenced by a newspaper called “The World” and other newspapers which we used to read avidly.

Though we met as a small group, we decided that we were going to support and pledge our solidarity with the students of Soweto because of what happened to them and also because their demands regarding the abolition of Bantu Education and the scrapping of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction resonated with ours in Mamelodi.

Some of the students that were at the meeting included Bafana Simelane, Isaac Magano and Morris Mashinini. (

It was agreed at that meeting that on Monday 21 June 1976, we as Mamelodi students would embark on a protest in solidarity with the Soweto students.

We agreed that the protest would be peaceful.

Our plan was to force all students in Mamelodi schools out of their classrooms and converge at one place to register our anger and dissatisfaction against the apartheid regime regarding the Soweto June 16 Massacre.

On the said Monday on 21 June 1976, we started singing and toyi-toying in protest at our school, namely Vlakfontein Technical High School and many students came out of their classrooms and joined us in this regard.

Upon realising that we were earnest and resolute in our protest action which disrupted learning and teaching, the teachers, the majority of whom were white and racist, decided to get into their cars and drive away out of the school in fear of their lives.

had personally tried to shut down the gate of the school to prevent the teachers from escaping but they bolted out before I could do so.

At that moment the students had already started pelting the teachers’ cars with stones, and the situation was chaotic now.

We then banded together as students and decided to march out of the school towards neighbouring schools like Tshwane Primary, Refentse Primary, Mogale Primary and Mangolwane Primary.

As we approached the said schools, many of the learners schooling there joined us in solidarity and together we marched towards Mamelodi High School.

We then realised that Mamelodi High School students had also abandoned their school premises and were marching towards us as a sign of solidarity.

At that moment police had not yet arrived at the scene, and we were singing and toyi-toying as we moved on around the township.

Upon reaching a spot where the local Engen garage is situated today near Maseko stores in Mamelodi West, we decided to split ourselves into two groups to seek solidarity from more schools around Mamelodi.

The one group went to the West side of Mamelodi while the other went to the East side of the township.

I was in the group that went to the East side of Mamelodi, and the Ribane Laka Secondary School students joined our march.

The school was situated at what today is known as Sindawonye Primary School in Khalambazo, Mamelodi East.

We marched through the township and reached Motima Lenyora Beer Hall in Mamelodi East and burned it down, this as it was owned by the apartheid government and our aim was to destroy any building associated with the regime.

Buses, bottle stores and all buildings that belonged to the government were burnt down on that day.

The police arrived at various places where rioting and protests were taking place and used teargas, rubber bullets and live ammunition to disperse the marauding students.

There was pandemonium as many students were shot and killed, while others were arrested.

I was arrested in August 1976, around 3 am at my hiding place at the back of a small cafe known as Semenya in Mamelodi East.

I was taken to Compol police building in downtown Pretoria where I was mercilessly interrogated and tortured. The apartheid security forces questioned me about an incident whereby our school Vlakfontein Technical High, was burnt down.

The security police also asked me about the whereabouts and political activities of many people, some of whom I didn’t even know.

I was also asked in detail about the political activities of the late Dr Rebeiro, who was an underground ANC operative.

I denied knowledge of everything they asked me about and I was then taken to New Lock/ Pretoria Central Prison, which is today known as Kgosi Mampuru Correctional Centre.

I was put in an isolation/ single cell, but I soon realised that there were other students who had also been arrested regarding the 1976 student uprisings in Mamelodi.

We were later on put in adjacent cells and this allowed us to speak as “neighbours,” though physical contact was not allowed and we couldn’t meet face to face.

Opposite our cell section there were leaders of the Black Consciousness Movement who had also been detained.

They were known as the SASO 9 and included the now incumbent Cope leader Patrick Terror Lekota, Saths Cooper, Strini Moodley, Muntu Myeza, Nkwenkwe Nkomo, Zithulele Cindi, Sedibe and Dr Nchaupe.

I was charged with arson and sabotage and my case was linked with that of my fellow students from Vlakfontein Technical High School, namely Bafana Simelani and the late Morris Mashinini.

Three other students who had been detained with us were later used as state witnesses against us.

We spent almost 6 months at New Lock/ Pretoria Central Prison as awaiting-trial prisoners before we were eventually found guilty of all charges at the Supreme Court in Pretoria on 7 February 1977.

I was sentenced to 7 years imprisonment, my co-accused Morris Mashinini was sentenced to 6 years imprisonment, while my other co-accused Bafana Simelane was slapped with a 5-year jail term.

We stayed at the Pretoria Central Prison for a few months before being transferred to Leeukop Prison, where we spent about 3 months.

From Leeukop Prison we were driven in a huge police truck to Kroonstad Prison in the Free State.

From there we were taken to Victor Vester Prison in Cape Town.

There we stayed for only one night before being shipped to Robben Island via a boat called Dias.

We arrived on Robben Island around April 1977 and put in the C Section of the prison, which is made up of single cells.

After a few weeks we were transferred to the E Section of Robben Island, where we met a number of prominent political prisoners who stayed in communal cells.

I am referring here to people like Tokyo Sexwale, Harry Gwala, Phandelani Nefolovodwe and Kgalema Motlanthe.

Later on, during our stay on Robben Island, we met Nelson Mandela, Govan Mbeki, Walter Sisulu, Ahmed Kathrada, Andrew Mlangeni, Wilton Mkwayi, Steve Tshwete, Jeff Masemola, Curnick Ndlovu, Mark Shinas and many other stalwarts of the liberation struggle.

We met and lived with prisoners from various political parties including Black Consciousness Movement of Azania, PAC and ANC.

We lived together and we were united despite despite the fact that we were coming from, and belonging to, different political organisations.

We learned a lot from our political leaders on Robben Island irrespective of the organisatons they were affiliated to.

Living conditions were harsh in prison and it was also hard living in an isolated area like Robben Island Prison, which is surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean.

My co-accused Mashinini and Simelane were released before me as they had received lesser sentences than mine and left me on the island prison.

I was eventually released on 7 November 1983, three months before my actual date of release.

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