June 16th Student Uprising
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 1953 the Apartheid Government enacted The Bantu Education Act, which established a Black Education Department in the Department of Native Affairs. The role of this department was to compile a curriculum that suited the "nature and requirements of the black people." The author of the legislation, Dr Hendrik Verwoerd (then Minister of Native Affairs, later Prime Minister), stated: "Natives [blacks] must be taught from an early age that equality with Europeans [whites] is not for them." Black people were not to receive an education that would lead them to aspire to positions they wouldn't be allowed to hold in society. Instead they were to receive education designed to provide them with skills to serve their own people in the homelands or to work in labouring jobs under whites.
Bantu Education did enable more children in Soweto to attend school than the old missionary system of education, but there was a severe lack of facilities. Nationally public to teacher ratios went up from 46:1 in 1955 to 58:1 in 1967. Overcrowded classrooms were used on a rota basis. There was also a lack of teachers, and many of those who did teach were underqualified. In 1961, only 10 per cent of black teachers held a matriculation certificate [last year of high school].
Because of the government's homelands policy, no new high schools were built in Soweto between 1962 and 1971 -- students were meant to move to their relevant homeland to attend the newly built schools there. Then in 1972 the government gave in to pressure from business to improve the Bantu Education system to meet business's need for a better trained black workforce. 40 new schools were built in Soweto. Between 1972 and 1976 the number of pupils at secondary schools increased from 12,656 to 34,656. One in five Soweto children were attending secondary school.
This 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 forming their own, much more politicised identity. Clashes between gangs and students only furthered the sense of student solidarity.
In 1975 South Africa entered a period of economic depression. Schools were starved of funds -- the government spent R644 a year on a white child's education but only R42 on a black child. The Department of Bantu Education then announced it was removing the Standard 6 year from primary schools. Previously, in order to progress to Form 1 of secondary school, a pupil had to obtain a first or second-degree pass in Standard 6. Now the majority of pupils could proceed to secondary school. In 1976, 257,505 pupils entrolled in Form 1, but there was space for only 38,000. Many of the students therefore remained at primary school. Chaos ensued.
The African Students Movement, founded in 1968 to voice student grievances, changed its name in January 1972 to the South African Students Movement (SASM) and pledged itself to building a national movement of high school students who would work with the Black Consciousness (BC) organisation at black universities, the South African Students' Organisation (SASO). This link with BC philosophies is significant as it gave students an appreciation for themselves as black people and helped politicise students.
So when the Department of Education issued its decree that Afrikaans was to become a language of instruction at school, it was into an already volatile situation. Students objected to being taught in the language of the oppressor. Many teachers themselves could not speak Afrikaans, but were now required to teach their subjects in it.
When the 1976 school year started, many teachers refused to teach in Afrikaans. But generally students were disparaging of the attitude of their teachers and parents. One student wrote to The World newspaper: "Our parents are prepared to suffer under the white man's rule. They have been living for years under these laws and they have become immune to them. But we strongly refuse to swallow an education that is designed to make us slaves in the country of our birth."
In June, Form 1 and 2 students from Orlando West Junior Primary School (also known as Phefeni) staged a classroom boycott. They were joined by students from seven other Soweto schools. The Department of Bantu Education sent the police in. At Naledi High School students had demanded to speak to the regional director of education. Instead members of the police Special Branch arrived. This led to the first incidence in which students really felt their power: when the Special Branch members locked themselves in the school principal's office, students overturned the police vehicles.
A students meeting was held in Orlando on Sunday 13 June. About 400 students attended. At the meeting, Tsietsi Mashinini, a 19-year-old-leader of a SASM branch, called for a mass demonstration against the use of Afrikaans was called for the following Wednesday, 16 June. Students made a pact not to get their parents involved, believing they would try to stop it.
On 16 June, students assembled at different points throughout Soweto, then set off to meet at Orlando West Secondary School where the plan was to pledge their solidarity, sing Nkosi Sikeleli 'iAfrika and, having made their point, go back home. Witnesses later said that between 15,000 and 20,000 students school uniform marched.
The Bureau of State Security (BOSS), which was in charge of South Africa's internal security, were caught unaware. A police squad was sent in to form a line in front of the marchers. They ordered the crowd to disperse. When they refused, police dogs were released, then teargas was fired. Students responded by throwing stones and bottles at the police. Journalists later reported seeing a policeman draw his revolver and shoot without warning into the crowd. Other policemen also started shooting.
Students started setting fire to symbols of apartheid, such as government buildings, municipal beerhalls and liquor stores, Putco buses, and vehicles belonging to white businesses. Anti-riot vehicles and members of the Anti-Urban Terrorism Unit arrived. Army helicopters dropped teargas on gatherings of students. Roadblocks were set up at all entrances to Soweto. The battle between students and police continued into the night.
Probably the most famous photograph of the uprising is the photo by Samuel Nzima of Mbuyisa Makhubu carrying the body of 13-year-old Hector Petersen, who had been shot, with Hector's sister running next to him. Samuel Nzima has described what he saw: "The first shot was fired before children started throwing stones. Then absolute chaos broke out. The children ran all over the place and stoned the police." A postmortem revealed that Hector had been killed by a shot fired directly into him, not a bullet ricocheting off the ground as the police later stated.
The dawn of 17 June revealed burnt-out cars and trucks blocking the roads, virtually every liquor store, beerhall, and community centre burnt to the ground. And dead bodies lying in the streets. The official death toll was 23; others put it as high as 200. Many hundreds of people were injured.
Students again poured into the streets. Parents stayed away from work to watch over their families. Police patrolled the streets. By the end of the third day of rioting, the Minister of Bantu Education had closed all schools in Soweto.
The rioting soon spread from Soweto to other towns on the Witwatersrand, Pretoria, to Durban and Cape Town, and developed into the largest outbreak of violence South Africa had experienced. Coloured and Indian students joined their black comrades. And unlike the riots of 1952 and the Sharpeville riots of 1961, the police were unable to quell the rioters, even with force. Students showed reckless disregard for their own safety to vent their frustrations. As soon as the upheavals were suppressed in one area than they flared up elsewhere. And so it continued for the rest of 1976.
A new generation had made their voice of opposition to apartheid heard, and were determined to be listed to. Many left South Africa to join the armies of the exiled political movements. Those who stayed behind ensured the exiled organisations could count on support from within the townships. June the 16th would never be forgotten.