16 June ’76: Tragic day for a great SA Jew

  • Edelstein Dr Melville HOME.jpg
A brave Jew died in the Soweto Uprising due to his compassion for the community. Little-known hero Dr Melville Edelstein’s life started in the stereotypical manner of almost all SA ‘Litvaks’, But he was by no means typical. A respected academic, he had the ear of PM Vorster & his Cabinet. When Edelstein - who worked in Soweto, shared a thesis with Govt outlining the dangers they faced, his warnings fell on deaf ears. If those who stoned him knew who he was, he wouldn't have been murdered - or called him a “bleddie wit k*****”! He was subject of a documentary film (linked)
by ANT KATZ | Jun 16, 2015
Above: the first of a three-part documentary, produced and directed by Kevin Harris and broadcast on SABC’s “Issues of Faith” on 16 June 2013. CLICK TO SEE PARTS 2 & 3. Harris’ acclaimed documentary was made in co-operation with Edelstein’s family in SA and Israel

Torn between allegiance to Israel & SA

Dr Melville Leonard Edelstein, one of only two white men who died in the Soweto Uprising of 16 June 1976 - murdered as a direct consequence of his compassion. This little-known struggle hero’s origins were typical of almost all first-generation SA-born ‘Litvak’ community. Edelstein was born to Lithuanian- and Latvian-born parents, Nachum and Rose Edelstein, in 1919.

Edelstein Dr Melville clippingBut Melville Edelstein was by no means typical.

RIGHT: A newspaper clipping from 17 June 1976

A sociologist, pacifist and frum Jew, Dr Melville Leonard 
Edelstein was born to Nachum and Rose Edelstein in 1919 in King Williamstown. His Litvak parents had first travelled to the UK and then Cape Town in 1896 - before joining the masses of "boere-Jode" [Afrikaner or farmer Jews] where his parents had settled and Nachum started and ran a successful business.

Melville, who met and came to know David and Paula Ben-Gurion during his many years in Israel, visited the founding couple often. He spent much of his life torn between his allegiance to Israel and SA - finally settling on the fact that it was in Apartheid SA that he could best serve humanity.

Edelstein Ben-GurionHe returned to SA and for the next 18 years served the Soweto community as a social worker. “Edelstein’s tragic slaying in Soweto … by a mob of enraged township youth, (was) the direct consequence of a racist system that socialised its citizens … on the basis of skin colour stereotypes,” wrote Kevin Harris

LEFT: Israel's founding family, David and Paula Ben-Gurion, who befriended Melville during his many years in Israel

He chose to serve SA

Melville’s philanthropic work was to serve the poor and oppressed, and, by so doing, “he brought hope and light into the lives of many of Soweto’s destitute and marginalised community,” says Harris.

His only goal was to serve humanity and who cared about people as individuals.

And it was this caring attitude that led to his murder on 16 June.

Once the situation became volatile, Edelstein – officially the deputy-chief welfare officer of the West Rand Administration Board tasked with instituting many community projects for the youth and disabled - ensured that his staff was moved out of Soweto to safety.

Then he realised he had not checked on the safety of one colleague – and made the fatal decision to drive back to to do so.

As it turned out, she had fled to safety, But Edelstein was caught by a mob of enraged students, dragged from the office and brutally slain.

Who is Kevin Harris?

Kevin Harris is a South African who has lived and worked as an independent filmmaker in South Africa for decades.

In November 2007, Kevin Harris was awarded the Golden Horn Film & TV Award for Life-time Achievement in Documentary Film-making by the National Film & Video Foundation of South Africa.

His independent career began in October 1979 when he was fired by the Apartheid controlled SABC TV regime for ensuring the uncensored broadcast of his documentary "BARA," which went behind the scenes of an overcrowded Baragwaneth Hospital and exposed the oppressive social and environmental conditions under which the community of Soweto were forced to live in the township.

Sorry, no memorial… TRC

The following account is extracted from a South African Press Association (SAPA) report after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's human rights violations committee completed its hearings of submissions on the June 16, 1976 Soweto pupil uprising.

The daughter of one of two white men killed by rioting pupils in Soweto on June 16, 20 years ago, appealed to the commission for a monument dedicated to her father, Dr Melville Edelstein.

Edelstein Dr Melville sepiaJanet Goldblatt, 32, flanked by her sister Shana Edelstein, appealed for witnesses to recall her father's last words and reveal the circumstances of his death. She said her family was plagued and mystified by her father's death.

RIGHT: A loving father, Edelstein died with his decades-long trauma of being unable to reconcile with one of his children from his first marriage
"He loved the people of Soweto almost like he did his own family," and believed all should be educated equally.

She said her father had a doctorate in sociology and worked for the West Rand Administration Board in an advisory capacity, setting up workshops for disabled people, and was involved in charity work.

Her father had never feared for his life working in Soweto, although he had indicated to her mother a week before his death that he was worried about the mood of pupils in the township.

Chairperson of the commission's reparations and rehabilitation committee, Hlengiwe Mkhize, said Goldblatt's request for a monument at the site of her father's death was a challenge for the Soweto community. 

Warnings to authorities went unheeded

Film-maker KEVIN HARRIS’s SYNOPSIS makes for gripping reading. [ONLINE EDITOR’S NOTE: Some of the following accounts are not for the feint-hearted.]

Deputy Chief Welfare Officer of the West Rand Administration Board [WRAB], Dr Edelstein was a philanthropist who over the years instituted many community projects for the Youth & the Disabled in Soweto.

A practicing orthodox Jew, Melville Edelstein was apolitical & dedicated to serving the good of mankind. He was also a pacifist who refused to enlist for World War II.

Before his death, he worked closely with the youth of Soweto and produced a prophetic Masters’ thesis intended to warn the Nationalist Party Government of their looming collision-course with black youth, titled, “What do young Africans Think?”

Edelstein Dr Melville graduationHighly respected as an academic, Melville Edelstein had the ear of Prime Minister of the day, John Vorster – as well as influential ministers in his Cabinet.

LEFT: Edelstein, wrote Harris, was a highly respected academic
Despite this, his warnings went unheeded. And so it was that, on 16 June 1976, the youth of Soweto took to the streets to register their rejection of the institution of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction in “Bantu Education” schools.

That morning, Dr Edelstein was hosting the official opening for a branch of his Sheltered Workshop Program designed to provide employment for the disabled in Orlando East, Soweto.

When news of the student uprising reached the project, the ceremony was brought to a hurried end as dignitaries and workers were ferried out of the township.

Concerned about the safety of a colleague – Pierette Jacques, back at the Youth Centre in Jabavu – Melville Edelstein drove from Orlando East through crowds of gathering students to get to her office.

“I told them it was going to happen.” Samuel Thlotleng, a social worker at the Central Western Jabavu office heard Dr Edelstein cry as he rushed into the office instructing his staff to leave immediately.

When Dr Melville Edelstein finally emerged from his office later that morning, the political temperature had long been raised by police shootings in the township and he walked straight into the wrath of a seething crowd of enraged students.

Shortly thereafter, news photographer Peter Magubane came across the disfigured remains of Dr Edelstein’s body – a crude sign hung around his neck with the words: “Beware, Afrikaans is the most dangerous drug for our future.”

If only they’d known who he was…

“If they’d known who he was, this would never have happened,” Magubane was quoted as saying.

“16 June ’76 – Remember Dr Melville Edelstein” is the little-known story of Dr Melville Edelstein – a philanthropist who chose to work within the confines of the Apartheid system to serve the poor & oppressed. In so doing he brought hope & light into the lives of many of Soweto’s destitute & marginalized community.

Caught in the backlash to the most oppressive phase of the Apartheid era – Melville Edelstein was the victim of the consequences of the system – a racist system which socialised South Africans to impulsively judge and respond to one another not as individuals with individual qualities, but according to a stereotypical image based solely on skin colour.

Sensitive to needs, he was their first victim

In the acclaimed “I Saw a Nightmare…” Doing Violence to Memory: The Soweto Uprising, June 16, 1976 by Helena Pohlandt-McCormick, the author says that there are reasons for ambivalence and does not find it strange that certain historical facts ‘disappear’:

There are reasons for the way the uprising appears and disappears in the literature, as in the archive. Among them are the uncertainty of what happened, the ambivalence of those who remembered Soweto, and the contradictions that marked this uprising.

Edelstein Dr Melville wrong place

RIGHT: The Soweto Uprising was in response to the Apartheid regime passing a law that made Afrikaans the official language of education in the "Bantu" school system. Edelstein had warned Vorster of the ramifications of doing so 
It is perhaps best symbolized by the death of Dr Melville Leonard Edelstein, a 56-year-old sociologist and chief welfare officer for the West Rand Bantu Administration Board. 
As an administrator of the West Rand Bantu Administration Board, Edelstein was a functionary of the apartheid system.

He had warned that the hostility of township youth should be taken as a serious threat to peace in Soweto. Of the high-school students he interviewed during the research for his study "What Young Africans Think?" which was to gain him his master's degree (in sociology) in 1971, 73 percent listed inadequate political rights among their major grievances.

Influx control, inadequate income, and inadequate educational facilities were the next three grievances on the list. On the morning of June 16, 1976, he was cornered at the Juvenile Employment Centre in White City by students who screamed at him and tore down the door to the office in which he had sought refuge:

Jou bleddie wit k*****, vandag vrek jy. You bloody white
k***** [n*****], today you are going to die [like an animal]

Dr Edelstein was stoned to death. In this way, one of the few white South Africans sensitive to the adversities that the youth of Soweto faced, and whose work in the welfare offices placed him in close physical and social contact with black youth, ironically became their first victim.

Later they found Dr Edelstein about 100 meters away.

All around was an ocean of black faces, yet there was hardly a sound.

"He loved the people of Soweto almost like he did his
own family," daughter Ja
net Goldblatt told the TRC.
He believed all should be educated equally


A crude sign hung around his neck with the words: 
“Beware, Afrikaans is the most
dangerous drug for our future.”


He produced a prophetic Masters’ thesis

“What do young Africans Think?” 

intended to warn Regime of looming

collision-course with black youth

1 Comment

  1. 1 Mark 22 Oct
    Truly appreciative as i am planing for some successful things ahead. Like your work and keep offering your information.


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