Ten Things About Soweto Uprising

June 16 1976: Every year on the 16th of June, South Africa commemorates Youth Day in honor of all the young people, mainly students, who lost their lives during the Soweto Uprisings.

June 16, 1976, Uprising began in Soweto was originally planned to stand up against the racist educational policies of the apartheid government as set out in the Bantu Education Act of 1953 peacefully.

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The Bantu Education Act was apparently introduced by the white-led government to erode the culture, heritage, educational and economic prosperity of black South Africans.

On that morning, between 10,000 and 20,000 students gathered at their schools to participate in the protest demonstration. Many of them sang freedom songs while others carried placards that read, ‘Down With Afrikaans’ and ‘If we must do Afrikaans, Viva Azania’, [Prime Minister John] Vorster must do Zulu’ as they marched towards Orlando soccer stadium where a peaceful rally was planned.

On their way to the stadium, the police tried to turn them back at first and disperse them with tear gas and warning shots but their advances were resisted by the crowd.

The policemen (about 50 of them) then opened fired directly at the young protesters. The students responded to the shots by throwing stones at the police while others fled the scene.

Over hundred students sustained injuries from the rampage, triggering a massive uprising that soon spread to more than 100 urban and rural areas throughout South Africa.

10 Things You Need To Know About Soweto Uprising

  • The over 10,000 students that protested in Soweto were mobilized by the South African Student Movement’s Action Committee (SASMAC), with the support of the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM).
  • The immediate cause for the protest was the imposition Afrikaans as the medium of instruction in half the subjects in higher primary (middle school) and secondary school (high school) by the Bantu Education Department. Bantu education was set up five years after the National Party came to power – in 1953.
  • The government’s Bantu Education Act was one of the apartheid government’s most offensively racist laws that neglected and offered black students a lower quality of education, with little or no funding. Conditions in schools were very poor with overcrowding, lack of resources, and unqualified educators.
  • The government spent R644 a year on a white child’s education but only R42 on a black child.
  • The main purpose of the Education Act was to train black students to be the labor force of white people. The government simply put it this way:  ‘To be hewers of wood and drawers of water for a white-run economy and society.’
  • The decree to switch to Afrikaans was issued on 1 January 1975. The language was to be used for mathematics, arithmetic, and social studies from standard five (7th grade). Indigenous languages would only be used for religious instruction, music, and physical culture while English would be the medium of instruction for general science and practical subjects (home craft, needlework, woodwork, metalwork, art, agricultural science).
  • This led to children at Orlando West Junior School in Soweto refusing to go to school on 30 April 1976.
  • The protest took place 7 years after Black students, led by Steve Biko (among others), formed the South African Student’s Organization (SASO).
  • During the protest, police shot and killed 13-year-old Hector Pietersen. The photograph in which Pietersen was carried to the local clinic by a fellow student, Mbuyisa Makhubu, and his sister, Antoinette Sithole became the symbol of the uprisings. The iconic picture was taken by political photographer, Sam Nzima.
  • The apartheid police are said to have killed 176 young people during the protests but according to estimates, over 850 people actually died during the widespread protests in 1976.
  • On the first day of the 1976 protests, at least 23 deaths were recorded and thousands injured. The apartheid police ordered township ­hospitals to report anyone receiving treatment for gunshot wounds to prosecute them for rioting, but doctors listed the wounds as abscesses.
  • About 300 white students from the University of the Witwatersrand marched through Johannesburg’s city centre in protest of the killing of children after the event.

What Afrikaans Entails At The Time

At the time, black students considered Afrikaans as the ‘language of the oppressor’ because:

  • Afrikaans was the language of the ruling party – National Party (NP). The NP was found by Barry Hertzog in 1914. It won the 1948 elections that ushered in apartheid alongside the Purified National Party (PNP). However, it was defeated by the ANC in 1994. In 1997, it made a comeback as the ‘New National Party and in 2005, it finally got dissolved.
  • African teachers lacked fluency in Afrikaans at the time and they believed switching over the ‘foreign’ language would definitely create a very big vacuum during teaching and learning process.
  • Had it been the protest did not take place, black students would have suffered a great negative impact on the language in the classroom. A former student at Phefeni Junior Secondary School in Soweto Sifiso Ndlovu, in his memoir, recalled how the use of Afrikaans in the classroom significantly lowered their grades in January 1976 (4 months before the demonstration).

Check Out: South African History: A Quick Review

Key Players 

The names of key participants in the Soweto Uprising cannot be exhausted. The presence of South African students, parents, activists, government employees, journalists and others in Soweto itself and elsewhere across the country cannot be undermined.

However, some key participants include:

  • Mbuyisa Makhubu (Young man carrying the schoolgirl shot by police)
  • 15-year-old Hastings Ndlovu (shot by police)
  • Antoinette Sithole (lady seen with Mbuyisa and Hector Pieterson)
  • Dr Melville Edelstein (He was stoned to death with a sign around his neck proclaiming “Beware Afrikaners)
  • Tsietsi Mashinini (deceased)
  • Khotso Seatlholo (deceased)
  • Murphy Morobe
  • Peter Lenkoe – Student at Madibane High School and President of ASM
  • Mathe Diseko – President of National Youth Organisation and National Secretary of SASM
  • Weli Sizani SASM Organiser
  • Vusi Tshabalala SASM President
  • Mamphele Ramphele – SASO member
  • Henry Isaacs – SASO President in 1973
  • Masterpiece Gumede – SASO
  • Joe Phaahla – President of AZASO
  • Aaron Motswaledi SANSCO Secretary-General
  • Simpiwe Mguduso SANSCO President in 1984-85
  • Leo Marquard – first president of NUSAS
  • Maeder Osler – NUSAS
  • Dumisani Mbatha
  • Deliza Mji – SASO President

In the Media

1987 film by director Richard Attenborough, Cry Freedom, and the 1992 musical film Sarafina! have a depiction of the Soweto Uprising. Andre Brink’s novel A Dry White Season also told the iconic Soweto Uprising story.

Watch: Photographer Sam Nzima On Soweto Uprising.

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