It is a day violently etched on the South African collective conscience. Commemorated over 30 years later as Youth Day, an official holiday, it is the day that honours the deaths of hundreds of Soweto schoolchildren, a day that changed the course of the country’s history: 16 June 1976.
On that day the government and the police were caught off guard, when the simmering bubble of anger of schoolchildren finally burst, releasing an intensity of emotion that the police controlled in the only manner they knew how: with ruthless aggression. SA History Online puts the number of dead at 200, far higher than the official figure of 23.
Bantu education was introduced by the National Party in 1954. Before that blacks either didn’t go to school or were educated in missionary schools, which fell away with the new system. Many more children were enrolled and the existing schools became extremely overcrowded – with class sizes of some 60 children – and the quality of the education declined.
Fewer than 10% of black teachers had a matric certificate in 1961, according to Philip Bonner and Lauren Segal in Soweto, A History. The schools were poorly equipped, with no science laboratories or sports fields, and often no library. Many children dropped out of school.
Introduction of Afrikaans
In 1976 the government introduced the compulsory use of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction from Grade 7 – then Standard 5. Circuit inspectors and principals received the directive: “It has been decided that for the sake of uniformity English and Afrikaans will be used as media of instruction in our schools on a 50-50 basis.”
What this meant was that maths and social studies were to be taught in Afrikaans, while general science and practical subjects such as housecraft and woodwork would be taught in English.
Bonner and Segal say one of the reasons for this ruling was that television was to be introduced to South Africa in 1976, and “Afrikaans-speaking conservatives feared that it would strengthen the position and status of English in the country”.
It was also felt that black school children were becoming too assertive and “forcing them to learn in Afrikaans would be a useful form of discipline”. Besides, the government argued, it paid for black education, so it could determine the language of instruction.
This was not strictly true. White children had free schooling, but black parents had to pay R51 – about half a month’s salary – a year for each child, in addition to buying textbooks and stationery and contributing to the costs of building schools. The disparity in the government subsidy was telling: R644 was spent on each white child, but only R42 on each black child.
Pupils, teachers and principals opposed the ruling on Afrikaans, for more or less the same reasons: teachers were ill-equipped to teach in the language, which was for most a third language.
When schools reopened in January 1976, parents and principals were unhappy – some applied for an exemption from teaching Afrikaans, saying their teachers were not qualified. The World newspaper of March 5 reported: “Although most of the school boards have capitulated to the medium of instruction directive from the Department of Bantu Education, the teachers and principals are very dissatisfied.”
Tensions over Afrikaans simmered in the following months. By June mid-year exams were approaching and pupils were getting restless. At a meeting called by student leaders on 13 June nearly 400 pupils turned up, and were addressed by 19-year-old Tsietsi Mashinini, “an extremely powerful speaker”.
He suggested that the following Wednesday – June 16 – pupils gather in a mass demonstration against Afrikaans. The students decided not to tell their parents, for fear of them upsetting the plan.
One pupil, Teboho Mohapi, told Bonner and Segal that there was much anticipation for 16 June: “They would just see us walking out of class and would try to stop us, and we would tell them, ‘Wait, this is our day.'”
16 June 1976
It was cold and overcast as pupils gathered at schools across Soweto on 16 June. At an agreed time, they set off for Orlando West Secondary School in Vilakazi Street, with thousands streaming in from all directions. The planned to march from the school to the Orlando Stadium.
“By 10.30am, over 5 000 students had gathered on Vilakazi Street and more were arriving every minute,” say Bonner and Segal. In total, “over 15 000 uniformed students between the ages of 10 and 20 [were] marching that day”.
Once at the stadium, the plan was to agree on a list of grievances, and then possibly to march to the offices of the Transvaal department of education in Booysens, in Johannesburg’s southern suburbs.
But this didn’t happen. Police formed a wall facing the pupils, warning them to disperse – an order met with resistance. Teargas was fired into the crowd and police dogs released. In the chaos, children ran back and forth, throwing stones at the police – who fired more teargas.
Bonner and Segal quote a student leading the march, Jon-Jon Mkhonza: “Students were scattered, running up and down … coming back, running … coming back. It was some kind of game because they were running away, coming back, taking stones, throwing them at the police … It was chaos. Whenever the police shot teargas, we jumped the wall to the churchyard and then came back and started discussing again.”
The first shot
Then came the first shot – straight into the crowd, without warning. Other policemen took up the signal and more shots were fired. Twelve-year-old Hector Pieterson fell to the ground, fatally wounded. He was picked up by Mbuyisa Makhubo, a fellow student, who ran with him towards the Phefeni Clinic, with Pieterson’s crying sister Antoinette running alongside.
The World photographer Sam Nzima was there to record Pieterson’s last moments. “I saw a child fall down,” he says. “Under a shower of bullets I rushed forward and went for the picture.”
The photo went around the world and Pieterson came to symbolise the uprising, giving the world an in-your-face view of the brutality of apartheid.
Then all hell broke loose. Students targeted apartheid symbols: administrative offices, government buses and vehicles and municipal beer halls, which were first looted and then set alight. By the end of the day thick clouds of black smoke hung over the township, and the streets were littered with upturned vehicles, stones and rocks.
Anti-riot vehicles poured into Soweto, roadblocks were erected at all entrances, the army was placed on alert and helicopters hovered overhead, dropping teargas canisters and shooting.
The injured pupils were taken to Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital, some dying in its corridors, some dying at its gates before they could be admitted, according to Bonner and Segal.
As night fell, the unlit township became even more terrifying: blinded by the night, police simply fired into the blackness. The students returned the fire with their own weapons: bottles and stones. The looted liquor was taking effect – people wandered the streets intoxicated, in a celebratory mood, raising clenched fists and shouting “Amandla!” (power).
The next day revealed the carnage: dead bodies and burnt-out shops and vehicles. The clashes continued, between police and students, joined by street gangs. Violence spread to another volatile Johannesburg township, Alexandra, and then across South Africa. By 18 June, all schools in Soweto and Alexandra had been closed by the authorities.
Most of the victims were under 23, say Bonner and Segal, and shot in the back. Many others were left maimed or crippled. By the end of the year about 575 people had died across the country, 451 at the hands of police, according to SA History Online. The injured numbered 3 907, with the police responsible for 2 389 of them. About 5 980 people were arrested in the townships that year.
International solidarity movements were roused as an immediate consequence of the revolt. They soon gave their support to the pupils, putting pressure on the apartheid government to temper its repressive rule. This pressure was maintained throughout the 1980s, until resistance movements were finally unbanned in 1990.
School principals were almost immediately allowed to choose their own medium of instruction, a major victory for the pupils. More schools and a teacher training college were built in Soweto. Teachers were given in-service training and encouraged to upgrade their qualifications by being given study grants.
The most significant change, however, was that urban blacks were given permanent status as city dwellers. They ceased to be temporary sojourners in the cities, expected to return to the homelands, often inferior pieces of land far away from industrial centres and jobs, where they held permanent residence.
The law banning blacks from owning businesses in the townships was abolished. Doctors, lawyers and other professionals were now also allowed to practise in the townships.
But there was a sting in the tail of these measures: the police were given powers to detain people without trial. The result was the detention of hundreds of people in the coming months. They were subjected to torture in a desire to confirm the government’s version of events: that the unrest was caused by a number of agitators.
And thousands of young people left the country, disillusioned with the government crackdown and harassed by the police. They never finished their education, choosing instead to go into military camps and receive training. Some were then infiltrated back into South Africa over the next decade, to perpetrate acts of sabotage. This was part of the steady onslaught against apartheid that finally broke its back towards the end of the 1980s.
Most of the exiles returned home in the early 1990s, to celebrate the birth of democracy in 1994.
Lest we forget the day, there is a museum to keep the memories fresh. The Hector Pieterson Museum, in Orlando West in Soweto, is just a few blocks from where students and police first began their violent confrontation.
Article first published on SouthAfrica.info on 15 June 2006
Reviewed: July 2015
Source: City of Johannesburg