The Soweto Uprising, also known as June 16, was a series of high school student-led protests in South Africa that began on the morning of June 16, 1976. 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 20,000 students took part in the protests. The number of people who died is usually given as 176 with estimates up to 700. The 16th of June is now a public holiday, Youth Day, in South Africa, in remembrance of the events in 1976.
Hector Pieterson being carried by Mbuyisa Makhubo after being shot by South African police. His sister, Antoinette Sithole runs beside them. Pieterson was rushed to a local clinic and declared dead on arrival.
Causes of the protests
Black high school students in Soweto protested against theAfrikaans 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 January 1, 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 religion instruction, music, and physical culture.
The association of Afrikaans with apartheid prompted black South Africans to prefer English. Even the homelands 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 Constitution that recognized only English and Afrikaans as official languages as pretext to do so.While all schools had to provide instruction in both Afrikaans and English as languages, white 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 [sic] 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 blacks as Afrikaans was widely viewed, in the words of Desmond Tutu, then Dean ofJohannesburg as “the language of the oppressor”. Teacher organizations 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 and not the subject material. This made critical analysis of the content difficult and discouraged critical thinking.
The resentment grew until April 30, 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. A student fromMorris Isaacson High School, Teboho ‘Tsietsi’ Mashinini, proposed a meeting on June 13, 1976, to discuss what should be done. Students formed an Action Committee (later known as the Soweto Students’ Representative Council) that organized a mass rally for June 16 to make themselves heard.
In a BBC/SABC documentary broadcast for the first time in June 2006, surviving leaders of the uprising described how they planned in secret for the demonstration, surprising their teachers and families (and the apartheid police) with the power and strength of the demonstration (see ‘Radio’ section below).
On the morning of June 16, 1976, thousands of 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 intended to be peaceful and had been carefully 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 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”.
A 2006 BBC/SABC documentary corroborated the testimony of Colonel Kleingeld, the police officer who fired the first shot, with eyewitness accounts from both sides. In Kleingeld’s account, some of the children started throwing stones as soon as they spotted the police patrol, while others continued to march peacefully. Colonel Kleingeld drew his handgun and fired a shot, causing panic and chaos. Students started screaming and running and more gunshots were fired.
The police loosed their dogs on the children, who responded by stoning the dogs to death. The police then began to shoot directly at the children.
One of the first students to be shot dead was 13-year-old, Hector Pieterson. He was shot at Orlando West High School and became the symbol of the Soweto uprising. The police attacks on the demonstrators continued and 23 people, including two white 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 Afrikaaners’ .
The violence escalated as the students came under attack; 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. 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 June 17 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 600.The original government figure claimed only 23 students were killed. The number of wounded was estimated to be over a thousand men, women, and children.
The aftermath of the uprising established the leading role of the ANC in the liberation struggle, as it was the body best able to channel and organize students seeking the overthrow 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 liberation amongst blacks. The perspectives set out in Joe Slovo’s essay No Middle Road – written at just this time and predicting the apartheid regime had only the choice between more repression and overthrow by the revolutionaries – were highly influential.
The Soweto Uprising was a turning point in the liberation struggle in South Africa. Prior to this event, the liberation struggle was being fought outside of South Africa, mostly in Rhodesia (later Zimbabwe), South West Africa (later Namibia) and Angola. But from this moment onwards, the struggle became internal and the government security forces were split between external operations and internal operations.
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 apuppet 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 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, and about 300 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 organizations directed the energy and anger of the youth toward political resistance. Students in Thembisa organized 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 June 18. 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 Barush Hirson’s “Year of Fire, Year of Ash” for a discussion of the ANC’s ability to channel and direct the popular anger).
The United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 392 strongly condemned the incident and the apartheid regime.
Henry Kissinger, United States United States Secretary of State at the time, was about to visit South Africa at the time of the riot, and said that the uprisings cast a negative light on the entire country.
African National Congress (ANC) exiles called for international action and more economic sanctions against South Africa.
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 photo-journalist 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!. The riots also inspired a novel by Andre Brink called A Dry White Season, and a 1989 movie of the same title. In the 2003 film Stander, the Soweto riots start Captain Andre Stander’s disillusionment with apartheid, and he seeks forgiveness from the father of a protesting student he killed.
Twenty years on from the uprising, for June 1996, the Ulwazi Educational Radio Project of Johannesburgcompiled an hour-long radio documentary portraying the events of June 16 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 asThe Death of Apartheid with a fresh introduction, providing added historical context for a British audience, byAnthony 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.