By - Victoria Akindele
The Soweto Uprising of 1976 was a major protest against policies of the Apartheid government that resulted in the introduction of the Bantu Education Act in 1953 in South Africa. It began as a march by black school children. The students were unhappy because schools in the townships of Soweto were forced to use the Afrikaans language for teaching certain subjects. Their protest turned into a rebellion that spread to other parts of the country.
English language was gaining prominence as the language most often used in commerce and industry. The 1974 decree was intended to forcibly reverse the decline of Afrikaans among black Africans.
The decree was resented deeply by blacks. Desmond Tutu, bishop of Lesotho and later Dean of Johannesburg, stated that Afrikaans was “the language of the oppressor”. Teacher organisations, such as the African Teachers Association of South Africa, objected to the decree. A change in the language of instruction forced the students to focus on understanding the language instead of the subject material. This made critical analysis of the content difficult and discouraged critical thinking.
The resentment grew until April 30, 1976, when children at Orlando West Junior School in Soweto went on strike, refusing to go to school. Their rebellion then spread to many other schools in Soweto. Black South African students protested because they believed that they deserved to be treated and taught equally to white South Africans. A student from Morris Isaacson High School, Teboho “Tsietsi” Mashinini, proposed a meeting on June 13, 1976 to discuss what should be done. Students formed an Action Committee (later known as the Soweto Students’ Representative Council), which organised a mass rally for June 16, to make themselves heard.
On June 16, 1976, students from various schools in Soweto, a neighborhood of Johannesburg, went to the streets to peacefully protest the introduction of the Afrikaans language as a medium of instruction in schools. The Black Consciousness Movement and Teachers supported the protests and emphasized that it should be peaceful. The procession moved from one school to another, picking up students. In some places, they found that the police had barricaded the roads and therefore had to change the route to avoid confrontations. As the number grew, the students held signs with slogans like “Down with Afrikaans,” “Viva Azania” and “If we must do Afrikaans, Vorster must do Zulu.” The police first fired tear gas, but the students pressed forward. They then killed a police dog that was set to charge on them, and this made the police to shoot directly at the students, some who were below the age of thirteen years.
Approximately 20,000 students went to the streets to converge at the Orlando Stadium. According to government records, many people, students inclusive died on that day alone. Black South Africans joined the protests and targeted businesses and houses of apartheid government workers and whites. Heavily armored vehicles patrolled the streets, and the government ordered doctors to record and report all those who were treated for bullet wounds so that they could be prosecuted. The doctors declined and recorded bullet wounds as swellings. A heavy police force patrolled Soweto for the following days as the army was put on standby as a show of readiness and willingness to use military force. Among those killed were two children named Hastings Ndlovu and Hector Pieterson. This led to days of rioting and hundreds of deaths.
News about the events in Soweto led to uprisings in black townships across the country. By the end of February 1977, Depending on the sources, casualties range from 176 to approximately 700 students. The uprising influenced other country-wide protests that changed the socio-political landscape in the country.
What Triggered the Soweto Student Uprising?
The government introduced the Afrikaans Medium Decree in 1974 forcing all schools to use both Afrikaans and English as official instructional language starting from Jan. 1, 1975. According to the decree, general science and practical disciplines like art, metalwork, agriculture, home craft, and needlework were to be communicated in English while Indigenous languages would be used for religious, physical culture, and music subjects. Afrikaans was to be used in mathematics, arithmetic, and social sciences. These instructions were to affect students from seventh grade onwards.
Black South African students preferred English which was spreading fast in trade and industry while Afrikaans was associated with the Apartheid regime and its use was on the decline among the African populations. Afrikaans was known as the language of the oppressor and a change of the language at seventh grade would force students to focus on learning the language rather than skills the subject provided.
By April 30, 1976, children at Orlando West Junior School refused to attend school prompting other schools in Soweto to join occasional protests. Students from different schools then formed a committee (Soweto Students’ Representative Council) that spearheaded the June 16 protests to pass a message.
Events That Followed the Soweto Uprising
The uprising claimed hundreds of casualties and thousands of victims. The ANC soon took a lead role in organizing strikes and representing student grievances. The international community condemned the apartheid regime and most boycotted any association with the regime. Political agitations increased as more youths and students joined movements and workers went on strike regularly thus hurting the economy. The Soweto Uprising strengthened the anti apartheid movement. It spurred labor unions, civic organizations, and armed branches of the African National Congress and the Pan-Africanist Congress to increase their efforts to end apartheid.
In South Africa, June 16 is now observed annually as Youth Day, which commemorates the uprising. This commemoration was adopted on 16 June 1991 by the Organisation of African Union (OAU) to honour those who had laid down their lives for the cause of freedom in South Africa. By adopting this day as the Day of the African Child, the African Union has drawn attention to the plight, not only of children in South Africa, but also to the plight of children across Africa.
The day has also become an opportunity to examine the progress of the implementation of the regional African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child. This Charter, which came into force in November 1999 is the first regional treaty on the rights of the child and complements the African Charter on Human and Peoples rights as well as the United Nations Convention on The Rights of the Child. Despite the progressive nature of the treaty and initiatives that accompany it, there remain enormous challenges such as poverty, violence and disease to overcome before justice to the status of the child can be claimed.
Each year a specific issue facing The African Child is chosen as a particular focus, and the theme for the Day of the African Child (DAC) 2019 selected by the African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (ACERWC), established in accordance with Articles 32 and 33 of the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (the Charter) is “Humanitarian Action in Africa: Children’s Rights First.”
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