June 16, 1976 turned into a bloody day for the young students of Soweto, South Africa. The Soweto uprising remembered annually on the public holiday – renamed ‘youth day’, by governments and South Africans equally.
It is now 38 years since that terrible day when an estimated 176 students died, and it is their determination for equal rights and freedom that now represents the public holiday.
On the morning of June 16 1976, an estimated 20,000 students from several Sowetan schools began a strike in the streets of Soweto. The protest was against the introduction of the Afrikaans language in local schools.
The black students protested against the forceful use of the Afrikaans and English language teaching. It was during 1975 that the Regional Director of Bantu Education announced the call of Afrikaans language usage for certain subjects including mathematics in schools. This new language launch was for students in 7th grade upwards, and informed that the natural indigenous languages used by the students would only be for religion, music and social lessons.
The worldwide growth of resentment toward the South African apartheid system, the increase of ‘black power’ in the USA, and the impact of colonialism in Africa caused the system to show visible signs of weakening in the early 1970’s. The black students in particular, associated Afrikaans with Apartheid, and as English was a prominent language worldwide, they preferred English with an native African language as the official languages. This compelling instruction remained widely criticized, and teachers at that time, raised concerns on how the students had to focus on understanding the Afrikaans language instead of facts taught. It discouraged critical thinking they remarked. The words of Desmond Tutu referred to Afrikaans as the language of the oppressor.
During April 1976 as the widespread resent of the Afrikaans language grew the students of Orlando West Junior School went on strike, refusing to go to school. This rebellion spread to other schools in Soweto. They protested because they believed they deserved to be taught equally to White South Africans. During the following months, the students continued to hold secret meetings and make plans to have their voice heard by the oppressive apartheid regime. The students organized a peaceful mass rally for June 16, to demonstrate the power and influence of their unity.
Almost 20 000 black students walked from their schools to the Orlando Stadium on the morning of June 16, 1976 for their planned peaceful demonstration to protest against the usage of Afrikaans language in schools. While marching toward their destination, they discovered the police had barricaded the road. The participating teachers told the students not to annoy the police, and they continued to advance along another route. While waving placards they used slogans such as “down with Afrikaans”, and Vivi Azania”, and the classic one, “if we must do Afrikaans, Voster must do Zulu”.
From the planned peaceful protest to the death of nearly 176 students, and the debate of who fired the first shot remains a mystery for most. Many stories of the actual events were told, and it can be said that although the students were calm, there were the agitated ones who began to throw stones at the police. A police officer fired a warning shot, which caused panic and confusion. The students started screaming and running, and then more gunshots fired by the police. The police dogs were let loose among the children, and they stoned the dogs to death. Then the police began to shoot at the children directly.
The first child to die in the uprising was a 13-year-old student. Hector Pieterson and it is his death that became the symbol of the Soweto Uprising. Dr Melville Edelstein, had devoted his entire life to the social welfare of the blacks was stoned to death by the students who left a sign around his neck proclaiming “Beware Afrikaners”.
A war-zone for an entire day, where violence escalated between angered students and police. The overcrowded hospitals could not cope with the wounded and bloodied children, and emergency clinics were set up to assist with the devastation of the rebellion, which abated in the evening.
The Soweto Uprising of 1976 will be remembered by the affected people of that day, and the history books, which clearly define the bloodied events that claimed so many lives and scarred much more.
Written by Laura Oneale