16 June ’76 – Remember Dr Melville Edelstein – the life & death of a good man

[Broadcast on SABC 2 “Issues of Faith” on 16th June 2013 @ 09h00]
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PREMISE

Dr Melville Edelstein’s tragic slaying in Soweto on 16th June 1976 by a mob of enraged township youth, is the direct consequence of a racist system that socialized its citizens to judge & respond to one another impulsively on the basis of skin colour stereotypes – rather than evaluating people as individuals with their own particular differentiating personal qualities.

CENTRAL CHARACTER

The central character is philanthropist, Dr Melville Edelstein.

Dr Edelstein’s goal was to serve humanity.

By all accounts he was a good man who cared about people as individuals.

This caring attitude towards every individual brought about his demise on the 16th June 1976.

Knowing that the situation was volatile – after ensuring that others had moved out of Soweto to safety – Dr Edelstein made the fatal decision to drive back into the township to check on the safety of a colleague.

His colleague had long moved out of the township to safety and Dr Edelstein – caught up in a mob of enraged students – was dragged out of his colleague’s office and brutally slain.

Under the circumstances, Dr Edelstein was slain because he was white.

His death was the direct consequence of the racist system of apartheid which socialized 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.

In this context, as a white man – following shortly after the shock brutal police-shootings, in the volatile heat of that moment – Dr Edelstein represented the oppressor and in that “mob situation” the crowd of black students instinctively avenged the killing and wounding of fellow students by police earlier that day by taking the life of Dr Edelstein.

In his private life, Dr Edelstein carried the pain of rejection by his eldest child and only son Michael from his first marriage.

Despite repeated ongoing attempts to reconcile, to his dying day, Dr Edelstein was rejected by Michael who – in a final act of rejection – legally changed his surname from Edelstein to Lyall.

SYNOPSIS

“16 June ’76 – Remember Dr Melville Edelstein”, is the life-story of Dr Melville Edelstein – brutally slain by a crowd of enraged students in Soweto on June 16th, 1976.

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 & produced a prophetic Masters thesis intended to warn the Nationalist Party Govt of their looming collision-course with Black youth, titled, “What do young Africans Think”.

Highly 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.

Despite this, his warnings went unheeded.

On June 16th 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 Melville Edelstein finally emerged from his office later that morning, the political temperature had long been raised by police shootings in the township & he walked straight into the wrath of a seething crowd of enraged students.

Shortly there-after, 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 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 back-lash to the most oppressive phase of the Apartheid era – Melville Edelstein was the victim of the consequences of the apartheid system – a racist system which socialized 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.