From http://www.sahistory.org.za/, images by bab Peter Magubane, videos by OGOLOTSE NTWAAGAE and Take a stand, Student Activism
The June 16 1976 Uprising that began in Soweto and spread countrywide profoundly changed the socio-political landscape in South Africa. Events that triggered the uprising can be traced back to policies of the Apartheid government that resulted in the introduction of the Bantu Education Act in 1953. The rise of the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM) and the formation of South African Students Organisation (SASO) raised the political consciousness of many students while others joined the wave of anti-Apartheid sentiment within the student community. When the language of Afrikaans alongside English was made compulsory as a medium of instruction in schools in 1974, black students began mobilizing themselves. On 16 June 1976 between 3000 and 10 000 students mobilized by the Soweto Students Representative Council’s Action Committee supported by the BCM marched peacefully to demonstrate and protest against the government’s directive. The march was meant to culminate at a rally in Orlando Stadium.
On their pathway they were met by heavily armed police who fired teargas and later live ammunition on demonstrating students. This resulted in a widespread revolt that turned into an uprising against the government. While the uprising began in Soweto, it spread across the country and carried on until the following year.
The aftermath of the events of June 16 1976 had dire consequences for the Apartheid government. Images of the police firing on peacefully demonstrating students led an international revulsion against South Africa as its brutality was exposed. Meanwhile, the weakened and exiled liberation movements received new recruits fleeing political persecution at home giving impetus to the struggle against Apartheid.
Oppression through inferior education and the 1976 Soweto uprising
An increase in secondary school attendance had a significant effect on youth culture. Previously, many young people spent the time between leaving primary school and obtaining a job (if they were lucky) in gangs, which generally lacked any political consciousness. But now secondary school students were developing their own. In 1969 the black South African Student Organization (SASO) was formed.
Though Bantu Education was designed to deprive Africans and isolate them from ‘subversive’ ideas, indignation at being given such ‘gutter’ education became a major focus for resistance, most notably in the 1976 Soweto uprising. In the wake of this effective and clear protest, some reform attempts were made, but it was a case of too little, too late. Major disparities in racially separate education provision continued into the 1990s.
When high-school students in Soweto started protesting for better education on 16 June 1976, police responded with teargas and live bullets. It is commemorated today by a South African national holiday, Youth day, which honors all the young people who lost their lives in the struggle against Apartheid and Bantu Education.
In the 1980s very little education at all took place in the Bantu Education system, which was the target of almost continuous protest. The legacy of decades of inferior education (underdevelopment, poor self-image, economic depression, unemployment, crime, etc.) has lasted far beyond the introduction of a single educational system in 1994 with the first democratic elections, and the creation of the Government of National Unity.
June 16 Soweto Youth Uprising
The introduction of Afrikaans alongside English as a medium of instruction is considered the immediate cause of the Soweto uprising, but there are a various factors behind the 1976 student unrest. These factors can certainly be traced back to the Bantu Education Act introduced by the Apartheid government in 1953. The Act introduced a new Department of Bantu Education which was integrated into the Department of Native Affairs under Dr He ndrik F. Verwoerd. The provisions of the Bantu Education Act and some policy statements made by the Bantu Education Department were directly responsible for the uprisings. Dr Verwoerd, who engineered the Bantu Education Act, announced that “Natives (blacks) must be taught from an early age that equality with Europeans (whites) is not for them”.
Although the Bantu Education Act made it easier for more children to attend school in Soweto than it had been with the missionary system of education, there was a great deal of discontent about the lack of facilities. Throughout the country there was a dire shortage of classrooms for Black children. There was also a lack of teachers and many of the teachers were under-qualified. Nationally, pupil-to-teacher ratios went up from 46:1 in 1955 to 58:1 in 1967. Because of the lack of proper classrooms and the crippling government homeland policy, students were forced to return to “their homelands” to attend the newly built schools there.
The government was spending far more on White education than on Black education; R644 was spent annually for each White student, while only R42 was budgeted for a Black school child. In 1976 there were 257 505 pupils enrolled in Form 1 at high schools which had a capacity for only 38 000 students.
To alleviate the situation pupils who had passed their standard six examinations were requested to repeat the standard. This was met with great resentment by the students and their parents. Although the situation did not lead to an immediate revolt, it certainly served to build up tensions prior to the 1976 student uprising.
In 1975 the government was phasing out Standard Eight (or Junior Certificate (JC)). By then, Standard Six had already been phased out and many students graduating from Primary Schools were being sent to the emerging Junior Secondary Schools. It was in these Junior Secondary schools that the 50-50 language rule was to be applied.
The issue that caused massive discontent and made resentment boil over into the 1976 uprising was a decree issued by the Bantu Education Department. Deputy Minister Andries Treurnicht sent instructions to the School Boards, inspectors and principals to the effect that Afrikaans should be put on an equal basis with English as a medium of instruction in all schools. These instructions drew immediate negative reaction from various quarters of the community. The first body to react was the Tswana School Boards, which comprised school boards from Meadowlands, Dobsonville and other areas in Soweto. The minutes of the meeting of the Tswana School Board held on 20 January 1976 read:
“The circuit inspector told the board that the Secretary for Bantu Education has stated that all direct taxes paid by the Black population of South Africa are being sent to the various homelands for educational purposes there.
“In urban areas the education of a Black child is being paid for by the White population, that is English and Afrikaans speaking groups. Therefore the Secretary for Bantu Education has the responsibility of satisfying the English and Afrikaans-speaking people. Consequently, as the only way of satisfying both groups, the medium of instruction in all schools shall be on a 50-50 basis…. In future, if schools teach through a medium not prescribed by the department for a particular subject, examination question papers will only be set in the medium with no option of the other language”.
Teachers also raised objections to the government announcement. Some Black teachers, who were members of the African Teachers Association of South Africa, complained that they were not fluent in Afrikaans. The students initially organised themselves into local cultural groups and youth clubs. At school there was a significant number of branches of the Students Christian Movements (SCMs), which were largely apolitical in character. SASM penetrated these formations between 1974 and 1976. And when conditions ripened for the outbreak of protests, SASM formed an Action Committee on 13 June 1976, which was later renamed the Soweto Student Representative Council (SSRC). They were conscientised and influenced by national organisations such as the Black Peoples’ Convention (BPC), South African Student Organisations (SASO)and by the Black Consciousness philosophy. They rejected the idea of being taught in the language of the oppressor.
The uprising took place at a time when liberation movements were banned throughout the country and South Africa was in the grip of apartheid. The protest started off peacefully in Sowetobut it turned violent when the police opened fire on unarmed students. By the third day the unrest had gained momentum and spread to townships around Soweto and other parts of the country. The class of 1976 bravely took to the streets and overturned the whole notion that workers were the only essential force to challenge the apartheid regime. Indeed, they succeeded where their parents had failed. They not only occupied city centres but also closed schools and alcohol outlets.
June 16 Soweto Youth Uprising casualties
Response to the June 16 Soweto Youth Uprising by organisations in exile
June 16 marks the commemoration of National Youth Day in South Africa. This is the day the country reflects on the massacre of many innocent school children during the Soweto Uprising of 1976. The response of the organisations in exile can be understood in the context of the events that took place on the day. The students had organised a peaceful march against the Afrikaans Medium Decree, issued in 1974, which made it mandatory for black schools to use the Afrikaans language as the medium of instruction in Mathematics, Social Sciences and Geography at the secondary school level. Punt Janson, the Deputy Minister of then Bantu Education, 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’ spoke only Afrikaans or spoke only English. It would be to his advantage to know both languages.”
The policy was deeply unpopular since Afrikaans was regarded by some as the language of the oppressor. It was against this background that on 30 April 1976, students at Orlando West Junior School in Soweto went on strike and boycotted classes. By 16 June, their rebellion spread to other schools in Soweto. Incidentally, the student-organised mass rally on this date turned violent, as the police responded with bullets to stones thrown by the angry students. Many students were shot. The official death toll was 23, but it could have been higher than 200 because the incident triggered widespread violence throughout South Africa, which claimed more lives. The first student to be shot on that fateful day was 15-year old Hastings Ndlovu. However, the killing in the same incident of Hector Pieterson, aged 12, and in particular the publication of his photograph taken by Sam Nzima, made him an international icon of the uprising. It became the major rallying point of the struggle against apartheid.
Military Response: Camps in exile
The incident triggered widespread violence not only in Soweto but also throughout South Africa. For the political organisations in exile, notably, the African National Congress(ANC) and Pa n Africanist Congress(PAC), the Soweto unrest in June 1976 provided a golden opportunity both for recruitment and military training of young men and women. Many black people felt in danger of being arrested by the police and further underground activities were launched as a result of this threat. Discreet recruitment operations culminated in many incensed students taking up arms against the government, and being sent for military training. Hence the mushrooming of military camps such as Mkhumbane in Temeke (Tanzania) outside the country, under the command and mentorship of Ntate Mashego and the Engineering camp in Angola. Recruits were advised on how to unlawfully cross the border(s) into Botswana, Swaziland, Angola, Mozambique and Tanzania, where they received military training. It is essential to note that the accession to power of the Mozambique Liberation Front (Frelimo) in Mozambique and the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) in Angola in 1975, together with the exodus of thousands of young people in the months following the Soweto uprising, created favourable conditions for the resumption of sabotage activity in South Africa, especially after the collapse of the ANC/Zimbabwe African Peoples Union (ZAPU) joint operation (i.e. the Wank ie Campaign). These developments were followed by the infiltration of trained fighters back into South Africa, bombings of white installations and the trials of anti-apartheid activists.
Clearly, an issue that gave rise to a vast number of trials under security legislation was the massive recruitment of people and their transportation out of South Africa. While there is certainly some indication that this was already on the increase prior to June 1976, the revolts of 1976 clearly gave an enormous boost to the activity of organisations recruiting members for military training. This is especially so in the case of the ANC, but there is also some evidence that PAC activity had been revitalised to some extent. As a result, there were many South Africans in ANC and PAC training camps. The period also witnessed a large number of trials against recruitment for military training. Those who were brought to trial for this offence seemed to reach a peak in 1977 and the first part of 1978. Many trained guerrilla fighters returned to South Africa, often wielding a large quantity of arms, explosives and ammunition. This group included the black school children who fled or were recruited in the wake of the June 1976 rebellion. Their activities gave rise to a number of trials as exemplified by the case of Petrus Bushy Molefe, aged 22, who underwent training in East Germany, and was charged for sabotage and terrorism under the Sabotage and Terrorism Acts of June 1962 and June 1967 respectively. Related to this was the large quantity of arms and ammunition found by police in their attempts to uncover guerrillas in the urban areas and in clashes in the rural areas. It is important to note that most of the arms caches that were uncovered comprised weapons originating from the then Soviet Union, and the Eastern bloc countries, which suggests that the West was not prepared to lend similar support to the Southern African guerrilla movements.
On 30 November 1976 a group of armed guerrillas clashed with the South African Police near Bordergate, on the Swaziland/South African border. A hand grenade was detonated by one of the guerrillas, injuring two policemen, and allowing the insurgents to escape. Shortly before this incident a railway line near Dikgale, in the Pietersburg district, was damaged in a successful sabotage attempt. From December 1976, in a series of raids covering Johannesburg, Soweto, Alexandra, Rustenburg, Odi, Nebo, Pietersburg and Sekhukhuniland, security police detained a number of ANC activists. Towards the middle of 1977 twelve accused activists, who included Mosima Gabriel “Tokyo” Sexwale, were charged under the Terrorism Act in the famous trial of the “Pretoria 12”. They were mainly accused of being members or active supporters of certain unlawful organisations in South Africa, Swaziland, Mozambique, Russia and China such as the ANC, the South African Communist Party(SACP) and Umk honto we Sizwe(MK). They were also alternately charged with endangering, in various ways, the maintenance of law and order in South Africa; undergoing military and other training; possession of explosives, ammunition, firearms and weapons; harbouring and rendering assistance to guerrillas; as well as taking part in the activities of a banned organisation. On the whole, they were accused of conspiring to overthrow the white government and were all convicted on the main count of sedition.
Thus, the response of the political organisations operating in exile was one that was premised on mobilisation, recruitment of people and the organisation of the armed phase of the struggle from outside in order to topple the apartheid government. Clearly, the events of the Soweto revolt and the response from the liberation movement in exile are not isolated developments. They have their roots in the spirit of resistance to the growing crisis of apartheid. The collective resistance to oppression and exploitation in South Africa also fundamentally underpins the relationship that was forged between internal and external forms of organisation after this incident. It led to major transformations in the strategies of the various exiled liberation movements more in accordance with the changing conditions in the country. A militant approach, that found expression in the recruitment and subsequent training of the cadres in neighbouring as well as some European and Asian countries, was emphasised.
References to Youth and the National Liberation Struggle 1894-1994
- Brits, J. P. (1995). The Concise Dictionary of Historical and Political Terms, London: Penguin.
- Christie, P. (1991). The Right to Learn: The Struggle for Education in South Africa, Johannesburg: Sached Trust/Ravan Press.
- Cross, M. (1992). Resistance and Transformation: Education Culture and Reconstruction in South Africa, Johannesburg: Skotaville.
- Howcroft, P. unpublished South African Encyclopaedia papers.
- Kallaway, P. (ed) (1984). Apartheid and Education: The Education of Black South Africans, Johannesburg: Ravan Press.
- Saunders, C. & Southey, N. (1998). A Dictionary of South African History, Cape Town: David Philip.
Remembering - The June 16 - 1976 Soweto Youth Uprising,