Soweto Uprising and Riots (1976 ) – Key Facts, Causes & Consequences

On June 16, 1976, black high school students numbering in their thousands from different schools took to the streets of Soweto to protest. They were expressing their grievances over a racially discriminatory educational policy that forced them to use Afrikaans as the official language in the classroom. The ensuing clashes between the police and the young and defenseless children resulted in up to 23 deaths. However, anti-apartheid activists disputed that claim. They stated that close to 200 people died that day. Below are all the important facts and events pertaining to the Soweto Uprising and Riots of 1976.

Key facts

Hector Pieterson - Soweto Uprising and Riots

1976 Soweto Uprising – Hector Pieterson’s lifeless body being carried to the hospital

  1. The black South African students that protested on that day came from a variety of high schools in Soweto.
  2. The apartheid government’s plan was to elevate Afrikaans language and culture higher than the remaining cultures in South Africa. Bear in mind, Afrikaaners constituted a small fraction of the population of South Africa. The Afrikaans Medium Decree of 1974 failed to consult key stakeholders in the black communities before imposing those language restrictions in the classrooms.
  3. For virtually all black and non-white students and teachers, the use of Afrikaans to teach and learn was a herculean task. These people were miserably ill-prepared and ill-equipped with textbooks and teaching materials written in Afrikaans.
  4. After the dust settled, official figures from the security agency put the death toll from the Soweto Uprising of 16 June in the mid-20s. However, many anti-apartheid activists have claimed that the death counts from Soweto Uprising were around 600-700.
  5. Hector Pieterson – a 13-year-old schoolboy who was cowardly shot and killed by the police during the uprising – is largely seen as a martyr in South Africa. There is even a memorial dedicated to him around the spot that he was killed. At the time of his death, Pieterson was in the company of his older sister, Antoinette Sithole.
  6. To commemorate the brave children who stood up to South Africa’s oppressive and apartheid government, the 16th of June is set as a public holiday. The day is called “Youth Day”.
  7. The famous anti-apartheid activist, Archbishop Desmond Tutu once called Afrikaans “the language of the oppressor”.
  8. In addition to the students that lost their lives, a number of teachers got injured or died on that fateful day. The name that comes to mind is Dr. Melville Edelstein – an influential social rights activist. Edelstein died after he was stoned to death by a small section of irate protesters.
  9. Across the world, a wave of political pressure was mounted on apartheid Prime Minister John Vorster. Surprisingly, the United States remained silent in the aftermath of the Soweto Uprising. To the shock of many anti-apartheid campaigners, the issue was swept under the carpet during the meeting between then U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and Vorster.

Causes of 1976 Soweto Uprising

Soweto Uprising 1976

Causes of the Soweto Uprising 1976

This move by the Apartheid government was just one of their numerous programs aimed at stifling the political, economic and social rights of blacks in South Africa. Here are some of the specific events and factors that galvanized the school children to go onto the street and protest:

Afrikaans Medium Decree of 1974

Punt Janson quote

The ruling elite, realizing that Afrikaans was fading and gradually being replaced by English, sought to use the Afrikaans Medium Decree of 1974 to make Afrikaans the dominant language in the country.

Over the decades, black South Africans had taken to using English as they felt that the Afrikaans language was too much associated with the Apartheid government.

The Afrikaans Medium Decree of 1974 called on schools to use Afrikaans in conjunction with English as the medium of instruction. The language of instruction in schools (from Standard 5 upwards) was to be split 50-50 between English and Afrikaans. This directive was given by MC Botha, the South Africa Minister of Bantu Education and Development. Botha and his deputy blatantly ignored the cries of several influential teachers and student unions.

The department erroneously reasoned that because black education was being paid by the government, the black teachers and students were supposed to keep quiet and just accept their latest apartheid policy. However, such claims were completely unfounded. Official data from that period showed that the government spent relatively less on black children’s education than it did on white children.

Ultimately, the decree resulted in a situation where students focused on the language in itself often to the detriment of subjects taught in the classroom.

Orlando West Junior School strike

In the months leading up to the deadly protest, school children at Orlando West Junior School, Soweto, decided not to go to school. In time, school children in other schools joined and skipped school. The children went on to organize themselves into a coalition – the Soweto Students’ Representative Council. In association with several teacher organizations (such as The African Teachers Association – ATASA), the students scheduled a mass rally for June 16. Even at that young age, the children could see the biting effect of apartheid on their education.

The deplorable nature of educational facilities in black schools

The educational decree of 1974 can be considered as the last straw that broke the backs of the school children and teachers in black communities. A quick delve into the issue and one cannot stop to notice that the underlying problem was due to decades of systemic neglect by the apartheid government. The high-school students had simply had enough of this neglect and they demanded better education.

Bantu Educational Act of the 1950s

Dr Hendrik Verwoerd quotes

From the 1950s, the apartheid government often boasted of how white-minority rule helped to increase the enrollment rate of black children. And yes; they were right to make such claims and pat themselves on the back for doing a good job. They gave credit for such improvements to the Bantu Educational Act of 1953. Student enrollment increased by about three-folds. However, it was not all rosy.

Schools in the black community, as well as non-white communities, were starved off the necessary funds to ensure that children received quality education. The public-to-teacher ratio as of 1955 was around 46:1. By the late 1960s conditions had got so deplorable that the ratio hovered around 58:1. There was immense overcrowding in the various classrooms. The local officials had no option than to go on a rota basis. Additionally, these schools had very few qualified teachers. The majority of the teachers – about 90 percent – had no matriculation certificate (the equivalent of a high school certificate).

Furthermore, the Bantu Act was designed for blacks to remain glued in their homelands. Due to the lack of adequate facilities, students were asked to go to their hometown and enroll there. There was increased public outcry over the education being substandard and lacking the ability to meet the needs of businesses and the community at large.

Active Student Unions and Mobilization

Afrikaans Medium Decree of 1974

An official remark from the Department of Bantu Education

As students’ numbers increased in black communities, anti-apartheid groups realized that they could mobilize these students and make them crucial voices for change.

In the nutshell, the increase in the numbers made the students very opinionated and politically conscious of the ills of their deplorable educational system. In the past, these children would have dropped out of high school or would not have even made it to high school.  They would have gone straight into some menial job or joined some wayward gang – gangs that caused havoc in the community.

Notable anti-apartheid students movements such as the South African Students Movement (SASM) and several other Black Consciousness groups worked very hard across the country to raise awareness of the issues. One of their famous leaders was Steve Biko, an anti-apartheid activist who would later die in police custody on 12 September 1977. Also, many of Biko’s colleagues were either arrested or tortured in their cells.

The economic depression of 1975

Some historians have stated that the economic hardships that plagued South Africa in 1975 may have compounded the problem. But this still does not explain why the apartheid government on a consistent basis decided to give significantly more funding to white schools than black schools. About 10-15 times more funds were spent in white schools, which in the first place had fewer students compared to black schools..

Granted there was not enough money to go around, the Soweto Uprising was fueled in part by statics such as the above.

What happened on June 16, 1976?

Soweto Uprising and Riots of 1976

Soweto Uprising and Riots of 1976

In the early morning hours of June 16, 1976, crowds of students began swelling around the Orlando Stadium in Soweto. The organizers of the protest, the action committee of Soweto Students’ Representative Council (SSRC), made sure that they got as many students to the venue. To show their solidarity with their pupils, several hundreds of teachers supported the children, who were in the region of 10 to 15 thousand.

Leading these students was Tsietsi Mashinini – a student from the Morris Isaacson High School. With several roads blocked in order to thwart the students’ march, Tsietsi Mashinini had to find alternative roots to lead the protesters. In the end, the protesters congregated close to the Orlando High School.

As the students marched, they chanted things like “Down with Afrikaans”. The police wanting to nip everything in the bud, decided to unleash riot dogs on the crowd. These dogs did not make it back alive; they were killed by the protesters.

The death of the dogs prompted the police to make a move on the crowd. One thing led to another and the protesters started hurling stones at the police. In an over-the-top response, the police responded with firing live bullets at the protesters. All hell broke loose as students started running for cover. It was a scene that could be described as absolutely chaotic and deadly.

Up to this day, historians have not figured out why the police decided to fire live bullets into the crowd.

After the first day of the protests, about two dozen lives were lost. Several shops and vehicles were vandalized. Armored police personnel had to move into Soweto to restore order. So many wards of the injured children flocked into hospitals in and around Soweto.

To add insult to injury, the police tried to compel hospitals to submit the names of children admitted into their facilities with bullet wounds. The police hoped to charge those children with illegal protests and rioting. Luckily, the doctors in those hospitals were professional enough to not heed to the police’s request.

The following day, June 17, armed-to-the-teeth policemen patrolled Soweto all in the name of keeping the peace. Several black South Africans, underage children as well, were detained and their rights abused.

Consequences of the 1976 Soweto Uprising

Unbeknownst to the apartheid government, the actions of the security forces that day would cause a huge uproar across the globe. Pictures of blood-stained children made their way into the foreign press. With this came mounting pressure on the South African government. The call to end apartheid got more and more vocal from then onwards, with many exiled South Africans and African nations calling for the end of the apartheid regime.

The government would struggle to keep the social and economic fabric of the country in shape. Due to a large number of children deaths, many white South Africans blasted Prime Minister John Vorster’s government for the callous manner in which the protest was handled. On June 17, a group of 400 white students from the University of the Witwatersrand in an act of defiance took to the streets. Many joined in to show their unflinching solidarity with the black community.

Nationwide, several black workers and unions laid down their tools, protesting the brutalities of the police against those children.

Coupled with all the upheavals, government officials across the country had to contend with continuous riots in their cities.

The economic ramifications of the uprising were substantial. The country was by then already experiencing an economic slowdown. The uprising only added more fuel to the fire as the value of the South African Rand plummeted.

In the international front, the United Nations (UN) quickly passed a resolution chastising the apartheid government of South Africa.

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