16 June 1976 Student Uprising in Soweto

Part 2: Students organize a protest

<Part 1: Background to the uprising >

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 center 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 organizations could count on support from within the townships. June the 16th would never be forgotten.

This article, 'June 16th Student Uprising' (http://africanhistory.about.com/od/apartheid/a/Soweto-Uprising-Pt2.htm), is an updated version of the article which first appeared on About.com on 8 June 2001.