The Soweto student 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, over 44 years ago.
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. An estimated number of 20,000 students took part in the protests.
The student protesters were faced with serious police brutality, with many being 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.
ORIGINS OF THE SOWETO STUDENT UPRISING
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, informed school principals and administrators 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) which made up the majority of core subjects offered in school at the time. 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. Furthermore, English had become a universal language especially being the language mostly 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 which recognized only English and Dutch as official languages, as the basis for its decision.
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.
The Deputy Minister of Bantu Education at the time, Punt Janson, 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 1974 decree was resented deeply by the black populace. Desmond Tutu, bishop of Lesotho at the time, and later Dean of Johannesburg, stated that Afrikaans was “the language of the oppressor”.
Teacher organizations, such as the African Teachers Association of South Africa, opposed 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, thus birthing the Soweto Student uprising.
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. This then led to students forming an Action Committee (later known as the Soweto Students’ Representative Council), which organized a mass rally for 16 June, to make their point clear.
On the morning of 16 June 1976, about 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 Soweto student uprising 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 emphasized good discipline and peaceful action.
Tsietsi Mashinini then led students from Morris Isaacson High School to join up with others who walked from. Naledi High School. The students began the march and found out not very far into it, 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“.
Before long, the police set their trained dog on the protesters, who reacted in defense by killing it. This then provoked police officers to shoot directly at the protesting students.
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 student uprising.
The police further intensified attacks on the demonstrators, killing and wounding several people and recording a death toll of 23 people on the first day in Soweto. Among those murdered 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 resulting from the Soweto student uprising then degenerated into a mass altercation between black people and the Apartheid government which was considered to be the oppressors.
Stores and public places frequented by government officials were attacked by many indigenous people. The violence subsided by nightfall, with Police vans and armored vehicles patrolling 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 government sent out about 1,500 heavily armed police officers to Soweto on 17 June, carrying weapons that included automatic rifles, stun guns, and carbines.
The Police drove around in armored 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, should the need arise.
By the end of the Soweto Students Uprising, on the 18th of June, 1976, a total number of 176 people including high school children, had been confirmed dead as a result of the violent turn which the protests took- a turn which was significantly enhanced by unnecessary police force by the South African police.
The total number of deaths is said to be as high as 700, but the official records show that 176 people were confirmed dead.
The Soweto Students Uprising will always be revered as what marked the beginning of a turning point for South African people. The protests gave ground to a new found zest for the African National Congress (ANC), to rebel against the Apartheid state and eventually overthrow them several years later.
Today, the 16th of June, the first day of the Soweto Student Uprising, is a national holiday in South Africa, known as Youth Day.
By Oluwamayowa Akinyemi
Oluwamayowa Akinyemi is a digital and web content developer with experience in web content development and management as well as research and writing. He is an avid reader of random subject matters and a sucker for movies and video games. He is also passionate about youth empowerment and is a global affairs analyst and enthusiast.