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Students from numerous Sowetan schools began to protest in the streets of Soweto in response to the introduction of Afrikaans as the medium of instruction in local schools. It is estimated that 20,000 students took part in the protests. They were met with fierce police brutality and many were shot and killed. The number of people killed in the uprising is usually given as 176, but estimates of up to 700 have been made. In remembrance of these events, 16 June is now a public holiday in South Africa, named Youth Day.
Causes of the protests
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 (homecraft, needlework, woodwork, metalwork, art, agricultural science). Indigenous languages would only be used for religious instruction, music, and physical culture.
The association of Afrikaans with apartheid prompted black South Africans to prefer English. Even the Bantustan regimes chose English and an indigenous African language as official languages. In addition, English was gaining prominence as the language most often used in commerce and industry. The 1974 decree was intended to forcibly reverse the decline of Afrikaans among black Africans. The Afrikaner-dominated government used the clause of the 1909 Union of South Africa Act that recognised only English and Dutch (the latter being replaced by Afrikaans in 1925) as official languages as the pretext to do so. While all schools had to provide instruction in both Afrikaans and English as languages, white South African students learned other subjects in their home language.
Punt Janson, the Deputy Minister of Bantu Education at the time, was quoted as saying: "A Black man may be trained to work on a farm or in a factory. He may work for an employer who is either English-speaking or Afrikaans-speaking and the man who has to give him instructions may be either English-speaking or Afrikaans-speaking. Why should we now start quarrelling about the medium of instruction among the Black people as well? ... No, I have not consulted them and I am not going to consult them. I have consulted the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa …"
The decree was resented deeply by the black populace. Desmond Tutu, bishop of Lesotho and later Dean of Johannesburg, stated that Afrikaans was "the language of the oppressor". Teacher organisations, such as the African Teachers Association of South Africa, objected to the decree. A change in language of instruction forced the students to focus on understanding the language instead of the subject material. This made critical analysis of the content difficult and discouraged critical thinking.
The resentment grew until 30 April 1976, when children at Orlando West Junior School in Soweto went on strike, refusing to go to school. Their rebellion then spread to many other schools in Soweto. Black South African students protested because they believed that they deserved to be treated and taught equally to white South Africans. A student from Morris Isaacson High School, Teboho "Tsietsi" Mashinini, proposed a meeting on 13 June 1976 to discuss what should be done. Students formed an Action Committee (later known as the Soweto Students' Representative Council), which organised a mass rally for 16 June, to make themselves heard.
On the morning of 16 June 1976, between 10,000 and 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. 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 trained 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 12-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 23 people died on the first day 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 Afrikaans is the most dangerous drug for our future".
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.
The number of people who died is usually given as 176 with estimates up to 700. The original government figure claimed only 23 students were killed; the number of wounded was estimated to be over a thousand people.
At least one white person, Dr Melville Edelstein, was killed.
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 (see below) 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. The day after the massacre, about 400 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 600.
The continued clashes in Soweto caused economic instability. The South African rand devalued fast and the government was plunged into a crisis.
The African National Congress printed and distributed leaflets with the slogan "Free Mandela, Hang Vorster", immediately linking the language issue to its revolutionary heritage and programme and helping establish its leading role (see Baruch Hirson's "Year of Fire, Year of Ash" for a discussion of the ANC's ability to channel and direct the popular anger).
The Hector Pieterson Memorial and museum opened in Soweto in 2002, not far from the spot where 12 year-old Hector was shot on the 16 June 1976.
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.
On the night of Tuesday 26 August 1986, police opened fire on a demonstration in the White City locale, killing between 20 and 25 people, possibly more, and wounding over 60. The South African government officially claimed that 11 people had died, later raising the figure to 12. The South African Information Bureau claimed that police opened fire on two occasions, one after a grenade was tossed at police, wounding four police. Residents said the fighting started when local officials sought to evict tenants who had been refusing to pay their rents for two months as part of a mass boycott. Security forces were said to have initially used tear gas to disperse crowds. Later, a resident telephoned a reporter to say: The police are shooting left and right. They just shot an old man. They are shooting at everyone, everything. UDF leader Frank Chicane described the police actions "as if entering enemy territory, with guns blazing." Minister of Information Louis Nel later came under fire for stating at a press conference that "Let there be no misunderstanding regarding the real issue at stake. It is not the rental issue, it is not the presence of security forces in Black residential areas, it is not certain remembrance days, it is not school programs. The violent overthrow of the South African state is the issue."
As retaliation, a Black Town Councilor was killed the following day, hacked to death by a mob. On September 4, police filled a stadium with tear gas to stop a mass funeral for a number of the victims, then swept through Soweto breaking up other services being held, including one at Regina Mundi Roman Catholic where tear gas canisters were thrown into a bus containing mourners. A service at Avalon Cemetery where thousands were reported to have gathered was also dispersed with tear gas and armored vehicles. Tear gas was also reported to have been dropped from helicopters on processions and crowds.
In the media
Images of the riots spread all over the world, shocking millions. The photograph of Hector Pieterson's dead body, as captured by photojournalist Sam Nzima, caused outrage and brought down international condemnation on the Apartheid government.
The Soweto riots are depicted in the 1987 film by director Richard Attenborough, Cry Freedom, and in the 1992 musical film Sarafina! and the musical production of the same name by Mbongeni Ngema. The riots also inspired the novel A Dry White Season by Andre Brink, and a 1989 movie of the same title. The Soweto uprising also featured in the 2003 film Stander about notorious bank robber and former police captain, Andre Stander. The lyrics of the song "Soweto Blues" by Hugh Masekela and Miriam Makeba describe the Soweto Uprising and the children's part in it.
20 years after the uprising, in June 1996, the Ulwazi Educational Radio Project of Johannesburg compiled an hour-long radio documentary portraying the events of 16 June entirely from the perspective of people living in Soweto at the time. Many of the students who planned or joined the uprising took part, as did other witnesses, including photographer Peter Magubane, reporter Sophie Tema, and Tim Wilson, the white doctor who pronounced Hector Pieterson dead in Baragwanath hospital. The programme was broadcast on SABC and on a number of local radio stations throughout South Africa. The following year, BBC Radio 4 and BBC World Service broadcast a revised version containing fresh interviews and entitled The Day Apartheid Died. The programme was runner-up at the 1998 European Community Humanitarian Office (ECHO) TV & Radio Awards and also at the 1998 Media Awards of the One World International Broadcasting Trust, and was highly commended at the 1998 Prix Italia radio awards. In May 1999, it was re-broadcast by BBC Radio 4 as The Death of Apartheid with a fresh introduction, providing added historical context for a British audience, by Anthony Sampson, former editor of Drum magazine and author of the authorised biography (1999) of Nelson Mandela. Sampson linked extracts from the BBC Sound Archive that charted the long struggle against apartheid from the Sharpeville massacre of 1960, through the riots of 1976 and the murder of Steve Biko, and right up to Mandela's release from prison in 1990 and the future president's speech in which he acknowledged the debt owed by all black South Africans to the students who gave their lives in Soweto on 16 June 1976.
- Hastings Ndlovu
- History of South Africa
- Liberation before education
- International Day of the African Child
- Baines, Gary. "The Master Narrative of South Africa's Liberation Struggle: Remembering and Forgetting 16 June 1976, International Journal of African Historical Studies (2007) 40#2 pp. 283–302 in JSTOR
- Brewer, John D. After Soweto: an unfinished journey (Oxford University Press, 1986)
- Hirson, Baruch. "Year of Fire, Year of Ash. The Soweto Revolt: Roots of a Revolution?" (Zed Books, 1979)
- "S. Africa marking Soweto uprising" – BBC
- Guardian Unlimited audio recording of Antoinette Sithole (Pieterson) on the Soweto uprising
- An extensive mashup with info on the events on 16 June 1976
- Youth and the National Liberation Struggle 1894–1994, South African History Online
- The June 16 Soweto Youth Uprising, South African History Online
- The June 16 Soweto students’ uprising – as it happened, South Africa Gateway
- Helena Pohlandt-McCormick. "I Saw a Nightmare…" Doing Violence to Memory: The Soweto Uprising, 16 June 1976 Columbia University Press, 2005