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 laboring 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 politicized 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 enrolled 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) organization 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 politicize 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.