June 16 1976: The man behind the high school that made history: who was Morris Isaacson?

By Chris Bishop

Much has been written about Morris Isaacson High School in the last 44 years and its place as a crucible of the Soweto uprising, but very little about the man who gave his money and name to the school.

Children from Morris Isaacson High School led the march through Soweto, to Orlando Stadium on June 16 that culminated in shootings and bloodshed leaving at least 176 dead – reports say the death toll was many times more. The youth of Soweto was protesting against the use of Afrikaans as, a language of instruction, because they felt it was a tool of oppression preparing them for menial jobs. Morris Isaacson High School was sought after by parents as it stuck to English – seen as the language of opportunity – but, in 1976, the authorities decreed it too was going to teach in Afrikaans.

It was a bitter chapter in a long history of Morris Isaacson that dates back to 1896. That was the year the man himself landed in South Africa. Isaacson arrived from Lithuania, the Baltic state that yielded the majority of Jewish immigrants to South Africa. He made a name for himself in his adopted country as a trade unionist, businessman and philanthropist.

In his later years, Isaacson gave money to open a school in what is now Soweto with the idea of funding black children towards university. It opened up in 1956 with 10 classrooms and 300 pupils under the name Mohloding School.  

The school educated leading lights of the South African liberation movement including Murphy Morobe, Tsietsi Mashanini  – one of the leaders of the Soweto uprising – and activist Abram Onkgopotse Tiro who perished in exile in Botswana in a bomb attack in 1972.

Nelson Mandela visited Morris Isaacson High School in May 1993 to acknowledge its place in the history of the struggle.

In 2017, according to Jewish Report, Isaacson’s grandson South African born Kevin, who lives in Israel, visited the school in his first visit to the land of his birth for half a century.

Kevin said grandfather gave the educational cause top priority.

“He was very far thinking in those days,” he said in using his wealth in a positive way.

“And it is satisfying to see this is still ongoing. This community wants to be successful and to make this a better place for the younger generation.”        

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