S/Africa: A historical perspective of the Soweto Uprising

South Africans have for some years now been observing what they call Youth Day, to honour hundreds of students of…

South Africans have for some years now been observing what they call Youth Day, to honour hundreds of students of all ages gunned down in cold blood in the streets of Soweto at the hands of apartheid police in 1976.By the time the guns went silent on that Wednesday morning on 16 June 1976, the white police had mowed down at least 500 peaceful students, according to rough estimates at the time.

But the general belief is that the death toll on that day might have reached over 1,000 students since the apartheid government did not reveal the actual number of the dead to the public.

While the introduction of Afrikaans as a second medium of instruction – after English – for classes among African students triggered the insurrection against the government, the explosion had been in the making for years.

And this could be traced back to the time the Europeans landed in the south of the country, in what is now called the city of Cape Town, where they had stopped on their way to Asia on trade trips.

The mid-1600s settlement in South Africa by the Afrikaners, whose original home was Holland, was the start of the nightmare that South Africans endured for nearly 400 years until 1994 when Nelson Mandela became the country’s first black president.

As history has it, the new settlers, from the start never hid their real intentions of landing in South Africa as they quickly and forcibly grabbed the country’s most precious resources, including land.

The now traumatised Africans – and former landowners – were unable to comprehend what was happening to them and tried to fend off the white invaders to protect their precious land.

Unfortunately, the Africans’ weapons of choice of knobkerries, bows, arrows and shields were no match for the “noisy spears” that spat smoke and killed them instantly. 

To cut a long story short, the white settlers completely destabilised the Africans’ way of life, where they no longer freely roamed and no longer freely provided food for themselves by raising cattle, fruits and other edibles.

When the Afrikaners grabbed the majority of the arable land from the Africans, the former forced the latter to come and work for them on the newly stolen land.

By and by, the new life set up in the land was a complete departure from the Africans’ old ways of life. Strange cash crops like sugarcane, tobacco, maize and potatoes were introduced on the land, thereby needing extra hands to work on the farms to grow them.

This new way of life, patterned after events in Europe, required Western education, which was introduced in the country by the settlers.

However, this was just enough to enable the Africans to know how to keep an account of the crops and not to advance to higher education.

As time went by, the Dutch Afrikaners were joined by their fellow Europeans from Britain in grabbing whatever was left of the spoils – land and minerals.

And soon the British replaced Afrikaans as the medium of instruction in the African classrooms – until the Dutch settlers reclaimed political power of South Africa in the 1948 elections.

While segregation and discrimination were the norms of life in the white-run South Africa, the new regime decided to consolidate these as laws of the land – thus apartheid, or separateness, was born.

Five years after taking the reins of power from English-speaking settlers, there was no double-speak about what the Afrikaners wanted in their relations to the African:  “Natives (blacks) must be taught from an early age that equality with Europeans (whites) is not for them.”

This policy led to the passing of a law called the Bantu Education Act. This law introduced a new Ministry of Bantu Education which was later integrated into the Ministry of Native Affairs under Hendrik F. Verwoerd, the architect of apartheid policies.

The uncompromising and negative provisions of the Bantu Education Act and some policy statements made by the Bantu Education Ministry were directly responsible for the Soweto Uprising decades later.

The Africans were fed up of seeing their schools being underfunded and underequipped, while those of whites were so well-funded they could match any educational facility in Europe.

While the Africans complained about this anomaly, their grievances fell on deaf ears.

In fact, the apartheid government decided to set up what they called “homelands”, a programme of settlements for Africans to return to as a new policy of “separate development.”

The homelands even had their prime ministers as rulers.

However, the homelands programme was soon discredited as companies complained that the new system deprived them of labour by encouraging township residents to return to the homelands instead of remaining in town to work in their factories. 

And educationists demanded more and better facilities in the townships like Soweto. Due to this, the apartheid government listened and built additional schools to accommodate the large population of school children in the townships in the 1960s.

Still, the figures on the ground showed that the apartheid government was spending far more on white education than on the black sector.

While the government spent US$100 annually for each white student, the black child only got $10 spent on him or her a year. And due to lack of development of any school facilities for the black student population over the years, the African schools were in a crisis in the 1970s.

For instance, during this period there were 257,505 pupils enrolled in Form 1 at the country’s black high schools which had a capacity for only 38,000 students.

These and other frustrations led the African students to start organising in order to present their grievances to the authorities to clean up the mess the apartheid education policies had created in running separate schools for whites and blacks.

However, instead of taking measures to build more schools to alleviate the overcrowding in the black communities’ schools, the Bantu Education Ministry wrote the institutions informing them that they should add Afrikaans as a medium of instruction – in addition to English.

Failing to do this “double-jeopardy education trap”, as one critic put it, would result in their schools being deprived of funds by the white taxpayers who paid for black education – since the tax revenue from the black communities was sent to use in running schools in the homelands.

This new policy, put forward in 1975, met such resistance from leaders of the black schools that throughout the year, there were protests against it among black students and their teachers – but in low key tones – until conditions ripened for fully blown protests.

With the new policy to use Afrikaans as a medium of instruction, the teachers complained that they were not skilled enough in the language to enable them use it for teaching courses to students who do not speak it because the apartheid government had not prepared both (teachers and students) for this.

On their part, the Soweto students formed an Action Committee on 13 June 1976, which was later renamed the Soweto Student Representative Council.

The purpose of this committee was to organise a peaceful demonstration from various Soweto schools to march to Orlando Stadium where they wanted to meet and deliver speeches against the introduction of Afrikaans as another medium of instruction in their schools.

National organisations such as the Black Peoples’ Convention, South African Student Organisations and the Black Consciousness of Steve Biko played a part in raising awareness among the students about the methods of resistance to this uncalled for Afrikaans policy.

During the students’ action committee meetings, a decision was reached to publicly reject the use of the “language of the oppressor,” and set 16 June as the day for a protest march in the dusty streets of Soweto on their way to Orlando Stadium.

This planning for the protests was taking place at a time when black-led political movements like the African National Congress, the Pan African Congress, and others were banned in the country – and South Africa was at its height of its apartheid misrule.

On the fateful Wednesday morning, the students, armed with only books in their hands, started off peacefully for Orlando Stadium, a short distance away.

But as soon as they moved up the street, the pupils found the white-led South African police force armed to the teeth with teargas, live bullets and attack dogs ahead of them.

With the children and the cops within sight of each other, face to face, the cops literally drew a line in the sand, and warned the youngsters not to cross. And if they did, they would face police violence.

The defiant students, who by now had picked up rocks at the sight of the dogs, reached the line in the sand – and one by one, defiantly crossed it.

Had they known, looking back now, the student leadership said they would not have crossed that “line of death” to save their lives, recalled 60-year-old Seth Mazibuko, one of the student leaders who led the march.

“If I knew that I would lead those children to be killed by old white policemen, I would never have done it. It is my only regret in life,” Mazibuko said.

Mazibuko said the police threw teargas at them after crossing the line in the sand, and when this did not succeed in stopping the students, the cops unleashed the police dogs.

But the dogs face a barrage of rocks thrown at them, forcing the canines to retreat for their lives.

It was after the dogs failed to stop the students, some as young as 13 years old, that the white policemen mercilessly opened fire on the black pupils – shooting them down like flies as some managed to limp away to safety.

The killing of the students and that famous Sam Nzima photograph of a dead 13-year Hector Pieterson carried by a brave 17-year-old as his sister Antoinette run by their side, turned South Africa into a complete public relations disaster.

For the first time, as has happened recently with African American George Floyd’s video, the Nzima image graphically told the story of a cruel apartheid regime that did not respect human rights – even of underage children.

While the rest of the world, led by the United Nations condemned the bloody acts of 16 June, world powers USA and UK were not convinced that their kith and kin’s human rights abuses in South Africa were anything to write home about.

Today, however, the Soweto students are praised for their brave acts to free South Africa from the bondage of the apartheid regime, whose bloody actions led the entire world to turn against Pretoria.

Mazibuko said he would like to urge young people to stop drinking and dancing on 16 June. “This public holiday is not a party.

“It breaks my heart when I see young people disrespecting it. I am calling on young people to remember what we did to fight the apartheid regime,” he said.