June 16, Youth Day
The Anniversary of The Soweto Uprising
St Aiden's Home Education - South Africa
The Soweto Riots or Soweto Uprising were a series of riots in Soweto, South Africa in
June 1976 between black youths and the South African authorities. The riots grew out of protests
against the policies of the National Party government and its
apartheid regime.

Causes of the protests
Black 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, 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) on (Link 1). English
would be the medium of instruction for general science and practical subjects (homecraft,
needlework, woodwork, metalwork, art, agricultural science). Indigenous languages would be
used for religion instruction, music, and physical culture (Link 2).

A 1972 poll had found that 98% of young Sowetans did not want to be taught in Afrikaans (Link 3).
The association of Afrikaans with apartheid prompted black South Africans to prefer English. Even
the despised 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 (Link 4). 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: "I have not consulted the African people on the language issue and
I'm not going to. An African might find that 'the big boss' only spoke Afrikaans or only spoke
English. It would be to his advantage to know both languages"'.

The decree was resented deeply by blacks as Afrikaans was widely viewed, in the words of
Desmond Tutu, then Dean of Johannesburg as "the language of the oppressor". Teacher
organizations such as the African Teachers Association of South Africa objected to the decree.
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 from Morris Isaacson High School, Tsietsi Mashinini, proposed a meeting on
13 June 1976 to discuss what should be done. Students formed an Action Committee (later
known as the Soweto Students’ Representative Council)
(Link 7) that organized a mass rally
for June 16, 1976 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.

The Uprising
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
(Link 8). 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; at the same time police called for reinforcements of
There are various accounts of what started the massacre which followed. The police had
weapons and tear gas while the students were unarmed. Some reports later claimed that the
school children were throwing stones, while others claim the protests were peaceful with no
violent actions from the children at all.

The police threw canisters of tear gas to disperse the students, who then began throwing stones
in retaliation. The gas forced the crowd to draw back a little, but they continued singing and waving
placards with slogans including: "Down with Afrikaans", "Viva Azania" and "If we must do
Afrikaans, Vorster must do Zulu". A white male police officer drew his handgun and fired a shot,
causing panic and chaos. Students started screaming and running and more gunshots were
fired. At least four children were shot, the first being Hastings Ndlovu followed by 13-year-old
Hector Pieterson. The photograph taken of his body became a symbol of police brutality (see
right). The rioting continued and 23 people, including three whites, 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

The violence escalated as the students panicked, bottle stores and beerhalls were targeted as
many believed that alcohol was used by the government to control black people.

Emergency clinics were swamped with injured and bloody children as ambulances came to and
fro. Almost all of the children who were brought in had sustained bullet wounds. The violence had
however abated with nightfall. Police vans and armored vehicles patrolled the streets throughout
the night.

Emotions ran high after the massacre on June 16. Hostility between students and the police was
intense, with officers shooting at random and more people joining the protesters. The township
youth had been frustrated and angry for a long time and the riots became the opportunity to bring
to light their grievances.

The 1,500 heavily armed police officers deployed to Soweto on June 17 carried high-powered
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 order
on standby as a tactical measure to show military force. Basic crowd control methods were not a
part of South African police training at the time, and many of the officers shot indiscriminately,
murdering many people. This only intensified the students' anger.

Political context
The repression of the African National Congress and its allies in the 1960s following the Rivonia
Trial and the unsuccessful intervention in Zimbabwe's liberation war led to a brief period of
relative internal peace in South Africa, but by the mid 1970s the victories of the MPLA and Frelimo
in Angola and Mozambique showed that white colonialists could be beaten by military force and at
the same time a new Black Consciousness Movement was giving new confidence to young
blacks. In this context the Afrikaans issue was, in the view of many participants in the uprising,
merely the spark that set the tinder alight - young blacks were looking for the issue over which to
confront the apartheid state.

After the uprising the African National Congress which had been rebuilding its underground
organization in the country was quick to offer the young militants an opportunity to receive military
training and the ANC also rapidly sought to provide a political focus to the rioting by distributing
leaflets calling for the death of the National Party's Prime Minister and the freedom of
Mandela. By November 1976 Murphy Morobe, one of the original leaders of the student revolt was
back in Soweto, having received military training, attempting to build a cell of Umkhonto we Sizwe
the ANC's military wing.

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 revenge and 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.
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. There was a huge threat of the riots spreading beyond Soweto.

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 continued clashes in Soweto caused economic instability. The South African rand devalued
fast and the government was plunged into a crisis.

The accounts of how many people died vary from 200 to 600, with Reuters news agency currently
reporting there were "more than 500" fatalities in the 1976 riots. The original government figure
claimed only 23 students were killed. The number of wounded was estimated to be over a
thousand people.

International reaction
Henry Kissinger, United States Secretary of State at the time, was about to visit South Africa at the
time of the riot, and 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.
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. There were protests against the
regime held outside of South Africa in many Western nations. The United Nations imposed even
more sanctions on South Africa. There were boycotts and much animosity towards the regime

Many consider the riots an event which signified the beginning of the end for apartheid. The
effects of the riots echoed across the country. After the riots, many black citizens were awakened
to the reality of apartheid, and started to resist, while some white citizens also withdrew their
support for the government. Despite continuing government crackdowns, popular unrest and
opposition to apartheid continued to grow until the end of the 1980s. Local and international
pressure led to the negotiated ending of apartheid between 1990 and 1994.
The Soweto riots are depicted in the 1987 film by director Richard Attenborough,
Cry Freedom,
and in the 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.
June 16 is now celebrated in South Africa as
Youth Day.
South Africa
June 16
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