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Pulitzer-Prize winning reporter visits UF, details Soweto uprising

Published: April 18th, 2011

Category: Events, News

Les Payne

The University of Florida Levin College of Law co-sponsored a visit from Les Payne, a Pulitzer-Prize winning reporter, to UF's Pugh Hall on April 11. (Photo by Nicole Safker)

By Nicole Safker (2L)

Thirty-five years ago, a group of black students in Soweto, a large settlement outside of Johannesburg, South Africa, left their classrooms and gathered in the streets to protest yet another oppressive government directive. During this time, the apartheid government was requiring half of all school subjects be taught in Afrikaans, a language viewed as the native tongue of the oppressors.

Black students – who had already been forced out of Johannesburg and into Soweto to live in substandard conditions – finally had enough. By the end of the overwhelmingly peaceful student demonstrations, more than 500 black schoolchildren had been killed by white government soldiers.

Les Payne, a Pulitzer-Prize winning reporter, caught wind of the uprising and knew he had to be there to bring home the stories of the students and their struggle.

One problem: Les was black. As a black man, he essentially had the same rights as the protesting students themselves under the apartheid regime, which were limited.

On April 11, faculty and other members of the community gathered in the Pugh Hall Auditorium on the main campus of the University of Florida to listen to Payne detail his experience covering the Soweto Uprising as an “honorary white person,” a status the government gave him so he could speak to and interview government officials and otherwise move freely about the country.

During apartheid, blacks, who made up 87 percent of the South Africa population, were given 13 percent of the worst land in South Africa. The tiny minority of white European descendants who held power enjoyed free reign and all the spoils of the country.

Payne, through favors and good luck, made it through the visa process and was allowed into South Africa. When he got there, he met resistance despite his government status being “white.”

Payne described the events of the uprising and the public outcry that resulted from his coverage of the events. White South Africans asked, “Should we be killing children simply because they don’t want to learn our language?” and “The answer from the police was yes, and they continued firing,” Payne said. Those around the world looked on in disbelief.

In addition to the stories and photos he sent home to Newsday, Payne also embarked on a project to help those in Soweto whose children and other loved ones were missing and also calculate an actual figure of how many were killed during the uprising. Since the government forbade the hospitals to keep accurate records of shootings related to the uprising – many government-inflicted bullet wounds were recorded as “abscesses” during this time – Payne and a colleague visited Sowetan morticians and later government offices to peruse death records under a pretense. Through his extensive search, he had calculated that more than 600 people were killed by the apartheid regime and published the victims’ names he found in a local newspaper.

He said his motivation for covering the events was not to win another Pulitzer Prize; but that it was most important for him to help the “families in Soweto – parents searching for their children.”

Payne is traveling around the country speaking to commemorate the 35th anniversary of the 1976 Soweto uprising. Over the course of his long career, Payne served as Newsday’s associate editor, local and national reporter and foreign correspondent and columnist. He also served as Newsday’s New York Editor and under his editorship his news staffs won every major journalism award, including six Pulitzer prices and a bevy of other honors and distinctions.

Payne’s visit to UF was co-sponsored by the Levin College of Law, the UF Center for the Study of Race and Race Relations, UF Center for African Studies, UF College of Journalism and Communications and the Center for Humanities and the Public Sphere.




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