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The June 16 Soweto Youth Uprising
On June 16 each year, South Africans celebrate Youth Day. Youth Day commemorates the Soweto Uprising, which took place on 16 June 1976, where thousands of students were ambushed by the apartheid regime.
On Youth Day, South Africans pay tribute to the lives of these students and recognises the role of the youth in the liberation of South Africa from the apartheid regime.
January of 1954, the Bantu Education Act came into effect, making it compulsory for black children to attend government schools and learn specific subjects in English and Afrikaans. Prior to this, most black children only had access to schools run by missions that were understaffed and poorly attended.
The Bantu Education system wasn’t much better. It featured separate Black schools and universities, poor facilities, overcrowded classrooms and inadequately trained teachers, resulting in a lack of quality education for black children. The Bantu Education Policy was designed to ‘train’ Africans for their role in the new apartheid society. This African role was one of the worker, labourer and servant only.
n January of 1976, the government mandated that all school subjects be taught in Afrikaans. The Afrikaner dominated government recognised only English and Afrikaans as official languages, and all indigenous languages were banned.
The decision caused an uproar amongst parents, teachers and students, so on the morning of June 16 1976, 16-year-old Antoinette Sithole and an estimated 20,000 students from Soweto and the surrounding secondary and high schools, planned to peacefully protest Afrikaans as the primary teaching language in schools.
The protest was planned by the Soweto Students Representative (SSRC), with support from the wider Black Consciousness Movement. Teachers and parents joined the march after the SSRC emphasised peaceful action. Little did they know this student protest would go on to become one of the most tragic, yet pivotal, protests in all of South Africa’s history.
The students began the march to Orlando Stadium, only to find out that police had barricaded the road along their intended route. The leader of the SSRC asked the crowd not to provoke the police, and the march continued on another route. The students sang and waved placards with slogans such as, “Down with Afrikaans” and “Viva Azania“.
The police responded to the protest by firing teargas and later live ammunition on demonstrating students. The police began to shoot at the protesters and in the confusion and chaos, Sithole’s 13-year-old brother, Hector Pieterson was fatally shot.
Photojournalist, the late Sam Nzima, was covering the protest for The World, a Johannesburg newspaper when he captured the iconic image of Pieterson’s lifeless body being carried through the streets with Sithole crying hysterically by his side. The photograph was published across the globe and Pieterson came to symbolise the uprising, giving the world a shocking glimpse into the sheer brutality of apartheid.
At least 176 Black students, many of them children, including Hector Pieterson, lost their lives on 16 June 1976.
The uprising resulted in a widespread revolt that spread across the country and carried on until the following year. The aftermath of June 16, 1976, had severe consequences for the Apartheid government. Pictures of the police firing on peacefully demonstrating students led to an international uproar against South Africa and its Apartheid system.
The students’ brave efforts resulted in international pressure and sanctions against the South African government to make changes to its educational policies.
June 16, 1976 uprising, students relives that day
History of Freedom Day
27 April 2022
Freedom Day is the commemoration of the first democratic elections held in South Africa on 27 April 1994. These were the first post-apartheid national elections to be held in South African where anyone could vote regardless of race.
We call on everyone to use the Freedom Month and Freedom Day celebrations to pull together over the coming weeks and months. Let us continue to fight the virus while striving for greater inclusion and social cohesion.
Although we have made remarkable progress since 1994, the spectre of inequality, poverty and unemployment remains one of the most glaring impediments to South Africa’s goal of national unity and social cohesion.
We also dare not forget the terrible past from which we have come, nor should we forget the many sacrifices made by patriots to ensure our democracy and freedom. Our history abounds with selfless patriots who paved the way for a democratic and free South Africa.
This year marks the 150th anniversary of struggle icon and human rights campaigner Charlotte Maxeke. She and other selfless women of her generation fought against oppression at a time when such defiance was met with unrelenting force.
Freedom Day is the National Day of South Africa and is a day of glory and remembrance for all South Africans that marks the end of the period of colonialism and Apartheid.