The Soweto Uprising started on the morning of June 16, as a series of protests led by high school students in South Africa. The immediate cause for the march was students’ opposition to the policies that resulted in the introduction of the Bantu Education Act in 1953: issued by the National Party also known as the Apartheid government. Since members of the ruling National Party spoke Afrikaans, the decree was resented deeply by blacks because they viewed it as the “language of the oppressor.”
The decree was intended to forcibly reverse the deterioration of Afrikaans (spoken by Dutch settlers) among black Africans. While all schools had to provide instruction in both Afrikaans and English as languages, white South African students learned other subjects in their home language. This policy did not go down well with African teachers and pupils who experienced first-hand, the negative impact of the new policy in the classroom.
According to the decree, which was to be adhered to from 1 January 1975, Afrikaans will be used for mathematics, social studies from standard five (7th grade), while English would be the medium of instruction for general science and practical subjects (home-craft, needlework, woodwork, metalwork, art, agricultural science) and indigenous languages would only be used for religious instruction, music, and physical culture.
The resistance grew when children at Orlando West Junior School went on strike, refusing to go to school and many other schools followed suit in Soweto. They protested because they believed they deserved to be treated and taught equally with white South Africans. A student from Morris Isaacson High School, Teboho “Tsietsi” Mashinini, proposed a meeting on 13 June 1976, to discuss what should be done and the students formed an Action Committee (later known as the Soweto Students’ Representative Council), which organized the mass rally of 16 June.
The protest which was planned by this Action Committee, with support from the teachers in Soweto and the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM). It was put to action on the morning of the 16th of June 1976, when close to 20,000 black students walked from their schools to Orlando Stadium for a march to protest against the act.
The students met with resistance from the police who had obstructed the road along their intended route but the leader of the Action Committee led the people through another route to avoid confrontation, eventually ending up near Orlando High 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”.
In a book about the uprising, titled Whirlwind before the storm by Alan Brooks and Jeremy Brickhill, “suddenly a white policeman lobbed a teargas canister into the front of the crowd. People ran 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 out. There a split seconds silence and pandemonium broke out. Children screamed. More shots were fired. At least four students fell and others ran screaming in all directions.”
Among the first students to be shot dead were Hastings Ndlovu and Hector Pieterson, who were shot at Orlando West High School. The photograph which was taken by Sam Nzima became the symbol of the Soweto uprising as it shows the picture of a dying Hector Pieterson as he was carried away by Mbuyisa Makhubo and accompanied by the dying boy’s sister, Antoinette Sithole.
The attacks on the demonstrators continued and 23 people died on the first day in Soweto. Bottle stores and beer halls were targeted by students as it was seen as the base of the apartheid government workers. Emergency clinics were swamped with injured and bloody children. The police requested that the hospital provide for them a list of all victims with bullet wounds to prosecute them for rioting, but the doctors refused to create the list and recorded bullet wounds as abscesses. The number of people who died were not clear but some said the deaths were up to 700 but the original government figure claimed only 23 students were killed and that the wounded were over a thousand people.
The images and news from the uprising spread across the world like wildfire, drawing outrage and international condemnation upon the Apartheid government. The United Nations Security Council issued Resolution 392, which strongly condemned the incident and the apartheid government. Also, African National Congress (ANC) expatriates called for international action and more economic sanctions against South Africa.
The killing of the students were widely condemned all over the world as a serious abuse of human rights and a crime against humanity.