June 16th, 1976 seemed like just another regular coolish South African winter’s day. Frustrated by parking problems, I made my way into my law class at the mostly “white only” University of the Witwatersrand, (WITS). Little did I know where this day would lead:
A fellow student ran into our class screaming that children were being shot by police in Soweto. Some of us white students who were involved in the anti-apartheid movement had word that the black students in Soweto had been mobilizing. We ran out of the building and took the streets, listening to radios for scant news but protesting nonetheless in our white enclave, soon to be joined by black laborers working in Johannesburg city. We were not shot at, but some were arrested. We were angry and we were not feeling peaceful. We seemed so far away, yet we were so close. Not knowing was hard, but news started to filter out as journalists were present. It was impossible to get to Soweto – the roads were sealed.
The last straw, delivered by the Apartheid regime’s Nationalist Party, was a ruling in 1974 that all black students would have to study through the medium of Afrikaans as well as English, the former the language of the Apartheid oppressor and the latter the language of the Colonizer. Black children had been raised with their respective indigenous languages which they were denied for the purpose of education. They also had to endure much inferior education as so much more money was pumped into the education of the white minority.
Education became a highly-charged political issue. The so called “Bantu Education” was different to white kid education. It was designed to prepare black South Africans, who never had the vote, for their suppression in the apartheid society. Education policy stood alongside the rest of Apartheids abhorrent tentacles such as the Pass Laws, The Group Areas Act, The Job Reservations Act, The Immorality Act. Each of these insidious statutes integral to the Apartheid structure and notion of separation and inferiority. As Hendrik Verwoerd, the architect of Apartheid noted: “There is no place for the African [black] in the European [white] community above the level of certain forms of labor. It is of no avail for him to receive a training which has as its aim, absorption in the European [white] community”
This Soweto uprising spread across the country forever changing the South African trajectory, drawing international attention and ultimately 14 years later culminating in International sanctions, and then the release of Nelson Mandela paving the way for South Africa’s new democracy and a Constitution ensuring 100% equal to all, including LGBTQI people.
That Day: On 16 June 1976 about 10 000 students mobilized intending a peaceful march was meant to lead to a rally in Orlando Stadium. As they marched, in song and dance, a traditional form of South African protest, they were met by heavily armed white police who fired teargas and live ammunition at the students.
The aftermath had dire consequences for the Apartheid government. Images of the police firing on peacefully demonstrating students led an international clampdown against South Africa as this 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.
The uprising took place at a time when liberation movements were banned throughout the country. Mandela was in prison. The youth led a movement that upstaged the labor protest movement. It was the youth who took over and helmed the change that was to come.
It is hard to get a clear picture of what exactly happened on the day of June 16th. Most of the information comes from eyewitness accounts of students who participated, journalists who were on the scene, as well as the police reports on the events.
Not all the children who were to participate in the march on June 16 knew about it on the morning of the 16th. For many it was an ordinary school day.
The leaders of the original march, mainly came from two high schools, Naledi High in Naledi and Morris Isaacson in Mofolo. The plan was that students from Naledi High were to march from their direction and pick up students from the schools on their way. The Morris Isaacson students were to march from their school doing the same until they met at a central point where they would proceed peacefully together to the Orlando Stadium. Other schools also were part of the original plan but it is not clear that the students at all those schools were fully aware of the march. The first students to gather together were at Naledi High. The mood was high spirited and jovial. At assembly the principal gave support to the children and wished them good luck.
Ultimately there were 11 columns of students marching to Orlando Stadium to meet at the central point. Before this point, there had been some minor skirmishes with police but it was here that police stopped them, barricading their path. Other schools had been stopped by the police earlier on and had dispersed but managed to join later.
The students carried on marching until they got to what is now Hector Petersen Square, close to Orlando High School. The march came to a halt again. Different reports of what actually started the shooting have been put forward.
“Despite the tense atmosphere the students remained calm and well ordered. Suddenly a white policeman lobbed a teargas canister into the front of the crowd. People ran out of the smoke dazed and coughing. The crowd retreated slightly but remained facing the police, waving placards and singing. A white policeman drew his revolver. Black journalists standing by the police heard a shot: “Look at him. He’s going to shoot at the kids”. A single shot ran out. There was a split seconds silence and pandemonium broke out. Children screamed. More shots were fired. At least four students fell and others ran screaming in all directions.” (Brooks & Brickhill Whirlwind before the storm, 1980)
After the first massacre, the students fled in different directions. Anger at the senseless killings inspired retaliatory action. West Rand Administrative Buildings (WRAB) vehicles and buildings were set alight and burned to the ground, a white WRAB official was pulled out of his car and beaten to death, liquor stores were burned and looted. Other encounters with the police occurred where more students were killed. As students were stopped by the police in one area they moved their protest action to others.
Fires continued blazing into the night. Armored Police cars later known as Hippos started moving into Soweto.
The second day was marked by absolute fury and piqued hostility. Police also assumed another attitude. They shot at random, and at anyone who would raise a fist and shout “Amandla” – “power to the People”.The protests lasted for days.
The Rand currency had lost value overnight. Thousands of workers had refused to go to work. It was a raging and profound crisis for the Apartheid government. It was also a serious loss of face in light of US Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger’s impending visit to South Africa.
“To add to this, 300 predominantly white Wits students marched through the city center to protest the killing of schoolchildren. An unusual sight in South Africa. As they marched through the streets they were joined by many black workers.” (News reports) I was among them. It was the saddest of days and yet the most empowering of feelings. It felt risky but right. We never stopped after that. I went on to complete my law degree and practiced in Apartheid South Africa, until a series of events led to my leaving for the United States in 1985.
Many students were shot. The official death toll was released at 23, but it is believed was more than 200.
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. Hector’s limp body being carried by a sibling though teargas filled township, will always be remembered as the face of a student uprising that brought South Africa’s Apartheid regime to its knees.
June 16 now marks the commemoration of National Youth Day in South Africa. This is the day the country reflects on the massacre of school children during the Soweto Uprising of 1976.
References to Youth and the National Liberation Struggle 1894-1994
- “The Count-Down has Started”: Statement on the Tenth Anniversary of the Soweto Uprising by O. R. Tambo, 16 June 1986
- Remembering French Investments In Apartheid South Africa, 17 December 2013
- 40 years after: Understanding the Soweto Uprising by Motsoko Pheko (Pambazuka News), 30 June 2016
- Soweto forty years on: The Black student rebellion of 1976 by Professor Noor Nieftagodien
- Statement by Oliver Tambo on the tenth anniversary of the Soweto uprising, 16 June 1986