Youth Day on 16 June is a public holiday in South Africa and commemorates a protest which resulted in a wave of protests across the country known as the Soweto uprising of 1976.
South Africa – It came in response to multiple issues with the Bantu Education Act and the government edict in 1974 that Afrikaans be used as a medium of instruction for certain subjects in black schools. The iconic picture of Hector Pieterson, a black schoolchild shot by the police, brought home to many people within and outside of South Africa the effect of the struggle during the Apartheid government’s reign.
The Soweto uprising was a series of demonstrations and protests led by black school children in South Africa that began on the morning of 16 June 1976.
Black South African high school students in Soweto protested against the Afrikaans Medium Decree of 1974, which forced all black schools to use Afrikaans and English in a 50–50 mix as languages of instruction. The Regional Director of Bantu Education (Northern Transvaal Region), J.G. Erasmus, told Circuit Inspectors and Principals of Schools that from 1 January 1975, Afrikaans had to be used for mathematics, arithmetic, and social studies from standard five (7th grade), according to the Afrikaans Medium Decree; English would be the medium of instruction for general science and practical subjects (home craft, needlework, woodwork, metalwork, art, agricultural science).
Indigenous languages would only be used for religious instruction, music, and physical culture.
On the morning of 16 June 1976, over 20,000 black students walked from their schools to Orlando Stadium for a rally to protest against having to learn through Afrikaans in school. Many students who later participated in the protest arrived at school that morning without prior knowledge of the protest, yet agreed to become involved. The protest was planned by the Soweto Students’ Representative Council’s (SSRC) Action Committee, with support from the wider Black Consciousness Movement (BCM). Teachers in Soweto also supported the march after the Action Committee emphasised good discipline and peaceful action.
Tsietsi Mashinini led students from Morris Isaacson High School to join up with others who walked from Naledi High School.
The students began the march only to find out that police had barricaded the road along their intended route. The leader of the action committee asked the crowd not to provoke the police, and the march continued on another route, eventually ending up near Orlando High School.
“The crowd of between 3,000 and 10,000 students made their way towards the area of the school. Students sang and waved placards with slogans such as, “Down with Afrikaans”, “Viva Azania” and “If we must do Afrikaans, Vorster must do Zulu”.”
The police set their dog on the protesters, who responded by killing it. The police then began to shoot directly at the children.
Among the first students to be shot dead were 15-year-old Hastings Ndlovu and 13-year-old Hector Pieterson, who were shot at Orlando West High School. The photographer Sam Nzima took a photograph of a dying Hector Pieterson as he was carried away by Mbuyisa Makhubo and accompanied by his sister, Antoinette Sithole. The photograph became the symbol of the Soweto uprising.
The police attacks on the demonstrators continued, and over 700 people died in Soweto. Among them was Dr Melville Edelstein, who had devoted his life to social welfare among blacks. He was stoned to death by the mob and left with a sign around his neck proclaiming “Beware Afrikaners”.
The violence escalated, as bottle stores and beer halls—seen as outposts of the apartheid government—were targeted, as were the official outposts of the state. The violence abated by nightfall. Police vans and armoured vehicles patrolled the streets throughout the night.
Emergency clinics were swamped with injured and bloody children. The police requested that the hospital provide a list of all victims with bullet wounds to prosecute them for rioting. The hospital administrator passed this request to the doctors, but the doctors refused to create the list. Doctors recorded bullet wounds as abscesses.
The 1,500 heavily armed police officers deployed to Soweto on 17 June carried weapons including automatic rifles, stun guns, and carbines. They drove around in armoured vehicles with helicopters monitoring the area from the sky. The South African Army was also ordered on standby as a tactical measure to show military force. Crowd control methods used by South African police at the time included mainly dispersement techniques.
“I remember on the 15 June 1976, just two months after my 16th birthday, when I woke up early in the morning, before the usual time, to prepare myself to go to school at Lofentse… as I was about to leave, I heard my mother from her bedroom saying, “Thabiso don’t forget to pay the rent before going to school”.
I didn’t care about being punished for arriving late at school as I rushed to the office to pay rent.
June 1976 was an extraordinary cold winter month, and the air was full of tension, when I went to school.
Lofentse secondary was a school that should not have existed, I thought to myself, as I walked down the Mooki street in Orlando East, on my way to Lofentse to be taught Bantu education in Afrikaans…
Little did I know that I’ll soon find myself caught between flying bullets from R4 assault rifles of the security forces of the Apartheid system, and their vicious police dogs, or becoming a victim of a stampede, caught up in grey dense clouds of suffocating teargas, accompanied by rattling sounds of helicopters above Soweto skies…
The aftermath of the uprising established the leading role of the ANC in the anti-apartheid struggle, as it was the body best able to channel and organise students seeking the end of apartheid. So, although the BCM’s ideas had been important in creating the climate that gave the students the confidence to strike out, it was the ANC’s non-racialism which came to dominate the discourse of the anti-apartheid movement amongst blacks.
The perspectives set out in Joe Slovo’s essay No Middle Road – written at just this time and predicting the apartheid government had only the choice between more repression and overthrow by the revolutionaries – were highly influential.
The clashes also occurred at a time when the South African Government was being forced to “transform” apartheid in international eyes towards a more “benign” form. In October 1976, Transkei, the first Bantustan, was proclaimed “independent” by the South African Government. This attempt to showcase supposed South African “commitment” to self-determination backfired, however, when Transkei was internationally derided as a puppet state.
For the state, the uprising marked the most fundamental challenge yet to apartheid and the economic and political instability it caused was heightened by the strengthening international boycott. It was a further 14 years before Nelson Mandela was released, but at no point was the state able to restore the relative peace and social stability of the early 1970s as black resistance grew.
“Many white South African citizens were outraged at the government’s actions in Soweto, and about 300 white students from the University of the Witwatersrand marched through Johannesburg’s city centre in protest of the killing of children. Black workers went on strike as well and joined them as the campaign progressed. Riots also broke out in the black townships of other cities in South Africa.”
Student organisations directed the energy and anger of the youth toward political resistance. Students in Thembisa organised a successful and non-violent solidarity march, but a similar protest held in Kagiso led to police stopping a group of participants and forcing them to retreat, before killing at least five people while waiting for reinforcements.
The violence only died down on 18 June.
The University of Zululand’s records and administration buildings were set ablaze, and 33 people died in incidents in Port Elizabeth in August. In Cape Town, 92 people died between August and September.
Most of the bloodshed had abated by the close of 1976, but by that time the death toll stood at more than 700.
The continued clashes in Soweto caused economic instability. The South African rand devalued fast, and the government was plunged into a crisis.
The United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 392 which strongly condemned the incident and the apartheid government.
A week after the uprising began, Henry Kissinger, the United States Secretary of State, met the South African State President, B. J. Vorster in West Germany to discuss the situation in Rhodesia, but the Soweto uprising did not feature in their discussions. Kissinger and Vorster met again in Pretoria in September 1976, with students in Soweto and elsewhere protesting his visit, and being fired on by police.
African National Congress (ANC) exiles called for international action and more economic sanctions against South Africa.
The 16th of June 1976 started a revolution that would see the end of Apartheid and the beginning of a new South Africa.
“The time will come when our nation will honour the memory of all the sons, the daughters, the mothers, the fathers, the youth and the children who, by their thoughts and deeds, gave us the right to assert with pride that we are South Africans, that we are Africans, and that we are citizens of the world.” – Nelson Mandela