Soweto uprising

Soweto uprising

The Soweto uprising or Soweto riots were a series of clashes in Soweto, South Africa on June 16, 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.

June 16 is now celebrated in South Africa as Youth Day.

Roots of the uprising

The origin of the protests are traced back to 1949 and the Eiselen Commission's enquiry into the edification of non-whites. The commission recommended drastic changes, which were implemented through the Bantu Education Act of 1953. The legislation caused many mission schools, through which the majority of black children were educated, to lose government aid and close. Funding for black schools was drawn from taxes paid by black people, who were generally impoverished. The result was a very uneven distribution of teaching resources in black and white schools.

Similarly, the Coloured Person's Education Act of 1963 made coloured education the responsibility of the Department of Coloured Affairs and barred coloured children from white schools. In 1965 the Indian Education Act consigned Indian education to the Department of Indian Affairs.

The funding available for bantu education was diverted to building schools in bantustans between 1962 and 1971, and no new schools were constructed in urban areas for non-white students during this time. In 1972 the state committed itself to generating better qualified labourers by improving the education system and between 1972 and 1976 forty new schools were built in Soweto. The learning population in the township multiplied threefold, but still only one in five Soweto children attended schools.

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), 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 be used for religion instruction, music, and physical culture [ [ Afrikaans Medium Decree] ] .

A 1972 poll had found that 98% of young Sowetans did not want to be taught in Afrikaans. 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 [" [ The Rise and Possible Demise of Afrikaans as a Public Language] "] . 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 grootbaas' 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.cite web|url=|title=The 1976 Students' Revolt|publisher=South African History Online]

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, Teboho '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) 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 (see 'Radio' section below).

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 [cite web|url=|title=The Soweto uprising 1976|] , 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 Mashininini 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 wove placards with slogans such as, "Down with Afrikaans", "Viva Azania" and "If we must do Afrikaans, Vorster must do Zulu". [cite web|url=|title=Soweto, 1976: ’n Inklusiewe herbegin 30 jaar later?|language=Afrikaans|publisher=Die Vrye Afrikaan|author=F.I.J. van Rensburg]

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. Police attempts to calm the crowd verbally, or to disperse the students using dogs and tear gas had no effect. One of the police dogs was caught, set alight and beaten to death. When police saw they were surrounded by the students, they fired shots into the crowd, and pandemonium broke out.

Colonel Kleingeld drew his handgun and fired a shot, causing panic and chaos. Students started screaming and running and more gunshots were fired. The first person to be shot was Hastings Ndlovu, followed by 12-year-old Hector Pieterson. The photograph taken of his body became a symbol of police brutality (see top right).

The rioting 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. [ [ soweto uprisings . com :: blog ] ] 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 panicked; bottle stores and beerhalls were targeted as many believed that alcohol was used by the government to control black people. The violence abated by nightfall. Police vans and armored vehicles patrolled the streets throughout the night.

Emergency clinics were swamped with injured and bloody children. It is not known how many injured children sustained bullet wounds because doctors refused to collect such details for fear that police would target the families of such children. In many cases bullet wounds were indicated on hospital records as abscesses.

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 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. Crowd control methods used by South African police at the time included mainly dispersement techniques, and many of the officers shot indiscriminately, killing many people.


The accounts of how many people died vary from 200 to 600 [cite book|title=The White Tribe of Africa|year=1987|first=David|last=Harrison] , 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 men, women, and children.

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.

The political context cannot be properly understood unless one places it in a regional setting. The Cold War had resulted in a number of local proxy wars when the various liberation struggles became linked with the global power balance between the USA and the USSR. In this regard Southern Africa was a local theatre of the Cold War. The preceived victory of the liberation forces in neighbouring Mozambique thus provided a trigger for the South African youth to take to the streets.

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 Nelson 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.

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.

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.

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.

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 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.+


Twenty years on from the uprising, in June 1996, the Ulwazi Educational Radio Project of Johannesburg compiled an hour-long radio documentary portraying the events of June 16th entirely from the perspective of people living in Soweto at the time. [The producers of this documentary included Keketso Semoko, Jeffrey Molawa, Moferefere Lekorotsoana and Andrew Ntsele of Ulwazi, working together with Peter Griffiths of BBC Radio 4.] 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". [Extra material collected by Peter Griffiths and Andrew Ntsele of the Ulwazi Educational Radio Project] 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 as "The Death of Apartheid" with a fresh introduction, providing added historical context for a British audience, by Anthony 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 16th June 1976. [All details from Peter Griffiths of BBC Radio 4 in London]

ee also

*Black Consciousness Movement
*Desmond Tutu
*Hastings Ndlovu
*Hector Pieterson
*History of South Africa
*Liberation before education
*Steve Biko
*South Africa under apartheid


External links

* "S. Africa marking Soweto uprising." BBC [] .

* Guardian Unlimited audio recording of Antoinette Sithole (Pieterson) on the Soweto uprising. []

* [ The photograph that changed the world] , by Jerome Cartillier, "Mail & Guardian", June 16, 2006.

* [ Soweto uprisings . com] , an extensive mashup with loads of info on the events on June 16th 1976.

* [] The Youth Struggle: The 1976 Student's Revolts South African History Online

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