Deeply etched in the collective memory, June 16 1976, was the day when the simmering flame of resentment against state repression flared into a furnace. June 16 1976 was the first day of what became known as the Soweto uprising.
It was the day that about 15 000 uniformed school children marched towards the Orlando Stadium, where a peaceful rally had been planned against the use of Afrikaans as the medium of instruction.
As the crowd gathered momentum, they were met by about 50 policemen who ordered them to turn back.
Accounts vary over exactly what happened next, but ultimately police fired on the school children. Many pupils scattered, running for shelter; others retaliated by pelting the police with stones. It was the day 13-year-old Hector Pieterson was shot dead, among the first in a rising list of casualties.
There was, of course, no internet at the time, but the photograph of Hector Pieterson, being carried by Mbuyisa Makhubo, with his sister, Antoinette Sithole, sobbing and running beside them went “viral” and was published on the front pages of newspapers worldwide. Taken by news photographer Sam Nzima, today it remains an iconic photograph of one of the struggle’s most emotional and cataclysmic moments.
A day later, a group of Wits students stood on the pavement of Jan Smuts Avenue, the main thoroughfare linking Johannesburg’s northern suburbs to the city centre. Behind them was the University of Witwatersrand. With placards and banners, they protested against “Bantu” education, apartheid and the heavy-handed tactics of the police.
For a 19-year-old student like myself, the act of taking part in the demonstration – which became a week of ongoing protests – proved to be an almost surreal experience.
On the island between the two directions of traffic stood a phalanx of policemen. And in front of their own campus, stood students from the Rand Afrikaans University (RAU) jeering at their liberal counterparts on the other side of the road.
About 300 white students then took to the streets and marched through Johannesburg’s city centre. Police broke up the march which striking black workers had joined as the campaign progressed.
It was both a heady time to be a politically-conscientised young student but also a time of deep angst. Living in the leafy “whites-only” suburbs was a world apart from Soweto, in reality about 32 km away.
There, running battles ensued between school children armed only with their ideals and stones and the heavily-armed police, the township effectively resembling a war zone.
While the uprising began in Soweto, it spread to cities and rural areas countrywide, and continued until year-end in the face of harsh state repression. In Cape Town, alone, 92 people died between August and September in 1976. In Langa, students marched to the police station where they handed their grievances to the police. One student was shot dead and others scattered as all hell broke loose. In Gugulethu, students were ordered by the police to disperse; when they stood their ground, the police fired tear gas at them. According to reports, between 25 and 30 people were arrested.
Coloured townships joined the protests, and in Bellville, 600 coloured students marched from the Bellville Training College and clashed with the police.
It did not end in the township schools; student leaders at the University of the Western Cape (UWC) and the University of Cape Town (UCT) organised marches. Many were arrested and detained. Included were UWC student leaders and community leaders who were detained and held at Victor Verster prison, near Paarl.
When the unrest spread to the centre of Cape Town, the government reimposed a countrywide ban on public gatherings until October 31 1976.
The simmering opposition to the oppressive education policy had started decades before: Bantu education was instituted in 1953, five years after the National Party came to power. The infamous Hendrik Verwoerd, then minister of native affairs and later prime minister, said the policy would educate black people to “know their place in society”.
He said: “Natives must be taught from an early age that equality with Europeans (whites) is not for them”.
Nowhere was it more evident than in the actual budget: the government at the time spent R644 a year on a white child’s education but only R42 on a black child.
A state plan for black pupils to be taught key subjects in Afrikaans had begun in 1974 and took effect from 1976. Both teachers and pupils opposed their education “in the language of the oppressor”.
As early as April 1976, pupils at Orlando West Junior School went on strike, an action committee was formed and a mass protest was planned for June 16. The committee became the Soweto Students’ Representative Council, part of the broader Black Consciousness Movement.
On June 16, the thousands of marching pupils brandished placards that read: “Down with Afrikaans” and “If we must do Afrikaans, (Prime Minister John) Vorster must do Zulu.”
The death toll for June alone was 176, with at least 23 deaths on the first day. Thousands of others were injured.
As we remember the groundswell that turned the tide against apartheid, it’s worthwhile to pay heed to the fact that today Youth Day is not only about educating youth and the public in general about our history and heritage but also being cognisant of the challenges facing youth today. In a media release about the importance of marking Youth Day, provincial government says, “It’s also about inspiring youth to get involved and working towards social cohesion and nation-building.
“While the youth of 1976 fought against the system of the apartheid government, our youth of today face new challenges. High levels of unemployment and poverty are serious challenges, but a better future is possible if we take small steps together.”
* Hector Pieterson was not the first child to die in the 1976 Soweto uprising. Another boy, Hastings Ndlovu, is believed to have been the first child to be shot on that fateful day. But in the case of Hastings, there were no photographers on the scene, and his name never became famous. It is believed that Hastings died several days after the shooting. His father, Eliot Ndlovu, died in 2004.