OPINION / SPEECHES

REMEMBERING THE JUNE 16 SOWETO YOUTH UPRISING BY KWAME BIKO

Date Posted: June 16, 2013

By KWAME BIKO

Email: info@uhuruspirit.org




Today, the people of South Africa are celebrating the Youth Day in remembrance of the heroic action by young people and students in South Africa on June 16 1976 against the dehumanizing forces of the then obnoxious and racist apartheid regime.

The introduction of Afrikaans alongside English as a medium of instruction is considered the immediate cause of the Soweto uprising, but there are a various factors behind the 1976 student unrest. These factors can certainly be traced back to the Bantu Education Act introduced by the Apartheid government in 1953. The Act introduced a new Department of Bantu Education which was integrated into the Department of Native Affairs under Dr Hendrik F. Verwoerd. The provisions of the Bantu Education Act and some policy statements made by the Bantu Education Department were directly responsible for the uprisings. Dr Verwoerd, who engineered the Bantu Education Act, announced that “Natives (blacks) must be taught from an early age that equality with Europeans (whites) is not for them”.

Although the Bantu Education Act made it easier for more children to attend school in Soweto than it had been with the missionary system of education, there was a great deal of discontent about the lack of facilities. Throughout the country there was a dire shortage of classrooms for Black children. There was also a lack of teachers and many of the teachers were under-qualified. Nationally, pupil-to-teacher ratios went up from 46:1 in 1955 to 58:1 in 1967. Because of the lack of proper classrooms and the crippling government homeland policy, students were forced to return to “their homelands” to attend the newly built schools there.

The government was spending far more on White education than on Black education; R644 was spent annually for each White student, while only R42 was budgeted for a Black school child. In 1976 there were 257 505 pupils enrolled in Form 1 at high schools which had a capacity for only 38 000 students.

To alleviate the situation pupils who had passed their standard six examinations were requested to repeat the standard. This was met with great resentment by the students and their parents. Although the situation did not lead to an immediate revolt, it certainly served to build up tensions prior to the 1976 student uprising.

In 1975 the government was phasing out Standard Eight (or Junior Certificate (JC)). By then, Standard Six had already been phased out and many students graduating from Primary Schools were being sent to the emerging Junior Secondary Schools. It was in these Junior Secondary schools that the 50-50 language rule was to be applied.

The issue that caused massive discontent and made resentment boil over into the 1976 uprising was a decree issued by the Bantu Education Department. Deputy Minister Andries Treurnicht sent instructions to the School Boards, inspectors and principals to the effect that Afrikaans should be put on an equal basis with English as a medium of instruction in all schools. These instructions drew immediate negative reaction from various quarters of the community. The first body to react was the Tswana School Boards, which comprised school boards from Meadowlands, Dobsonville and other areas in Soweto. The minutes of the meeting of the Tswana School Board held on 20 January 1976 read:

"The circuit inspector told the board that the Secretary for Bantu Education has stated that all direct taxes paid by the Black population of South Africa are being sent to the various homelands for educational purposes there.

"In urban areas the education of a Black child is being paid for by the White population, that is English and Afrikaans speaking groups. Therefore the Secretary for Bantu Education has the responsibility of satisfying the English and Afrikaans-speaking people. Consequently, as the only way of satisfying both groups, the medium of instruction in all schools shall be on a 50-50 basis.... In future, if schools teach through a medium not prescribed by the department for a particular subject, examination question papers will only be set in the medium with no option of the other language".

Teachers also raised objections to the government announcement. Some Black teachers, who were members of the African Teachers Association of South Africa, complained that they were not fluent in Afrikaans. The students initially organised themselves into local cultural groups and youth clubs. At school there was a significant number of branches of the Students Christian Movements (SCMs), which were largely apolitical in character. SASM penetrated these formations between 1974 and 1976. And when conditions ripened for the outbreak of protests, SASM formed an Action Committee on 13 June 1976, which was later renamed the Soweto Student Representative Council (SSRC). They were conscientised and influenced by national organisations such as the Black Peoples' Convention (BPC), South African Student Organisations (SASO) and by the Black Consciousness philosophy. They rejected the idea of being taught in the language of the oppressor.

The uprising took place at a time when liberation movements were banned throughout the country and South Africa was in the grip of apartheid.

The uprising

On the morning of 16 June 1976, between 10,000-20,000 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, 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 Mashinini 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 waved placards with slogans such as, "Down with Afrikaans", "Viva Azania" and "If we must do Afrikaans, Vorster must do Zulu".

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. Colonel Kleingeld drew his handgun and fired a shot, causing panic and chaos. Students started screaming and running and more gunshots were fired.

The police loosed their dogs on the children, who responded by stoning the dogs to death. The police then began to shoot directly at the children.

One of the first students to be shot dead was 13-year-old Hector Pieterson. He was shot at Orlando West High School and became the symbol of the Soweto uprising. The police attacks on the demonstrators 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. 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 came under attack; bottle stores, and beer halls - seen as outposts of the apartheid government - were targeted as were the official outposts of the state. The violence abated by nightfall. Police vans and armoured vehicles patrolled the streets throughout the night.

Emergency clinics were swamped with injured and bloody children. The police requested that the hospital provide a list of all victims with bullet wounds. The hospital administrator passed this request to the doctors, but the doctors refused to create the list. Doctors recorded bullet wounds as abscesses.

The 1,500 heavily armed police officers deployed to Soweto on 17 June 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 ordered 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.

The protest started off peacefully in Soweto but it turned violent when the police opened fire on unarmed students. By the third day the unrest had gained momentum and spread to townships around Soweto and other parts of the country. The class of 1976 bravely took to the streets and overturned the whole notion that workers were the only essential force to challenge the apartheid regime. Indeed, they succeeded where their parents had failed. They not only occupied city centres but also closed schools and alcohol outlets.

Casualties

The number of people who died is usually given as 176 with estimates up to 700. The original government figure claimed only 23 students were killed[citation needed]. The number of wounded was estimated to be over a thousand men, women, and children.

The Aftermath

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 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 perspectives set out in Joe Slovo's essay No Middle Road - written at just this time and predicting the apartheid regime had only the choice between more repression and overthrow by the revolutionaries - were highly influential.

The Soweto Uprising was a turning point in the opposition to white rule in South Africa. Formerly, the struggle had been fought outside of South Africa, mostly in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), South-West Africa (now 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.

The clashes also occurred at a time when the South African Government was being forced to "transform" apartheid in international eyes towards a more "benign" form. In October 1976, Transkei, the first Bantustan, was proclaimed "independent" by the South African Government. This attempt to showcase supposed South African "commitment" to self-determination backfired, however, when Transkei was internationally derided as a puppet state.

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 Nelson 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 18 June. 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.

The African National Congress printed and distributed leaflets with the slogan "Free Mandela, Hang Vorster", immediately linking the language issue to its revolutionary heritage and programme and helping establish its leading role (see Baruch Hirson's "Year of Fire, Year of Ash" for a discussion of the ANC's ability to channel and direct the popular anger).

International reaction

The United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 392 which strongly condemned the incident and the apartheid regime.

Henry Kissinger, United States Secretary of State at the time, was about to visit South Africa at the time of the riot, and said that 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.

Sources:

The June 16 Soweto Youth Uprising, http://www.sahistory.org.za/topic/june-16-soweto-youth-uprising

Soweto Uprising, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soweto_uprising



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