Why June Is Significant In South Africa

In commemoration of the Soweto Uprising of 1976, the 16th of June is set aside to mark the National Youth Day in South Africa, every year. This day is celebrated in honour of the school children who risked their lives to protest against the apartheid system. In 1953, under the apartheid rule, Bantu Education was set up and the primary aim for this project was to further undermine the place of black people in South Africa. It was said that Hendrick Verwoerd, the minister of Native Affairs at the time thought “Natives must be taught from an early age that equality with Europeans [whites] is not for them.”


While segregation between the White, Colored and Black people was not a new phenomenon in the country, the students became dissatisfied when the government proposed the Afrikaans Medium Decree in 1974. According to this decree, from 1975 it would be mandatory for Black schools to use the Afrikaans language as the medium of instruction. The policy was widely unpopular as Afrikaans was associated with the majority (Whites), who were also regarded as the ‘oppressors.’


For the Whites, the aim for establishing this policy was echoed through Punt Janson. Jason, the Deputy Minister of Bantu Education at the time, was quoted as saying: “A Black man may be trained to work on a farm or in a factory. He may work for an employer who is either English-speaking or Afrikaans-speaking and the man who has to give him instructions may be either English-speaking or Afrikaans-speaking. Why should we now start quarrelling about the medium of instruction among the Black people as well?”

Most of the students, particularly those preparing for final examinations, were not very fond of this proposed change. For most of them, comprehending a new language would adversely affect their understanding of the subjects and this marked the beginning of tensions which led to a strike. On April 30, 1976, the students of Orlando West Junior School in Soweto protested by boycotting classes. Soon, they were joined by other Black South African students. They decided to organise a mass rally in order to make their grievances known, stressing that they deserved to be taught and treated equally with White South Africans.

Black students demonstrate in protest against having to use Afrikaans language at school, in Soweto, in August 1976. After violent clashes in Soweto in June 1976, UN Security Council condemned South African government because of its apartheid policy and the repression of the Black protests in Soweto that caused hundreds of deaths and thousands of injured people.
Black students demonstrate in protest against having to use Afrikaans language at school, in Soweto, in August 1976.

According to reports, between 10,000 and 20,000 Black South African students were marching peacefully to the Orlando Stadium. However, the police accosted the protesters while they were still calm and orderly. Then, “suddenly a white policeman lobbed a teargas canister into the front of the crowd causing people to run 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 rang out. There were a few seconds of silence before pandemonium broke out. Children screamed. More shots were fired. At least four students fell and others ran screaming in all directions.”

Soweto uprising
Hector Pieterson being carried by Mbuyisa Makhubo after being shot by South African police. His sister, Antoinette Sithole, runs beside them. Pieterson was rushed to a local clinic and declared dead on arrival. This photo by Sam Nzima became an icon of the Soweto uprising.

The student that was shot on that fateful day, was Hector Pieterson, who was only 12 years old. He became the national symbol of the Soweto Uprising which left almost 700 people dead.




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