Security forces with dogs hold back a crowd protesting against Minister Piet Koornhof being given the “Freedom of Soweto. Photo: Noel Watson
Today South Africa celebrates Youth Day in commemoration of the 40th anniversary of the Soweto uprising. On June 16,1976 students rose up in protest against the racist and unjust bantu education system. The students were protesting against an order from the then Bantu Education Department that Afrikaans be used as a medium of instruction in schools.
On this fateful day, the students congregated with the intention of peacefully marching to Orlando Stadium but as they took to the streets of Soweto they clashed with the Apartheid police who tried to block the march using force and violence.
The Apartheid police fired teargas into the crowd and set police dogs on the students, who in turn threw stones at the police in self defence.
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As the skirmishes continued, without warning, the police fired shots into the crowd, and what followed was a bloodbath, with many students dying in the protest. The June 1976 death toll has been put at 176, and thousands were injured in the process.
Children stand in front of the Hector Pieterson memorial depicting Pieterson being carried after being shot by Apartheid police forces during a student uprising in Soweto, South Africa, 16 June 2013 Photo: ANP/EPA/Kim Ludbrook
What triggered the protests were the pronouncements to use Afrikaans as the language as instruction but beyond that, the struggle was essentially against the whole systematically unjust and racist system of Bantu education. The system was characterised by separate education departments, segregated schools and universities, poor facilities, overcrowded classrooms and inadequately trained teachers.
During apartheid, there were separate government department and organs for each racial group and each respective department had different resources, curriculum and funding available. The Department of Education and Training (DET) served Africans in the townships and homelands. The House of Representatives (HOR) served coloured students under the Department of Coloured Affairs, the House of Delegates (HOD) served Indian students through the Department of Indian Affairs, and the House of Assembly (HOA) white students.
The discriminatory bantu education system was structurally designed to deprive Africans of meaningful education opportunities to keep them at the margins of society.
However, the discrimination became one of the rallying points, which inspired the political movements fighting for independence, freedom, equality and justice.
The journey to freedom and democracy was indeed long and arduous and many lives were lost. As South Africa celebrates this historic day, we remember and salute the sacrifices made by the country’s young people.