Soweto Uprising - Youth Day
June 16th is a public holiday in South Africa commemorating the start of the Soweto Riots of 1976, sparked off by a government edict that all instruction in black schools would be delivered in Afrikaans.
The Soweto Uprising, also known as Youth Day, is a series of protests led by high school students in South Africa that began on the morning of 16 June 1976. Students from numerous Sowetan schools began to protest in the streets of Soweto in response to the introduction of Afrikaans as the medium of instruction in local schools. An estimated 20,000 students took part in the protests. The number of people who died is usually given as 176, with estimates of up to 700. 16 June is now a public holiday, Youth Day, in South Africa, in remembrance of the events of 1976.
On the morning of 16 June 1976, between 10,000 and 20,000 black students walked from their schools to Orlando Stadium for a rally to protest against having to learn through Afrikaans in school. Many students who later participated in the protest arrived at school that morning without prior knowledge of the protest, yet agreed to become involved. The protest was planned by the Soweto Students' Representative Council's (SSRC) Action Committee, with support from the wider Black Consciousness Movement. Teachers in Soweto also supported the march after the Action Committee emphasised good discipline and peaceful action.
Tsietsi Mashinini led students from Morris Isaacson High School to join up with others who walked from Naledi High School. The students began the march only to find out that police had barricaded the road along their intended route. The leader of the action committee asked the crowd not to provoke the police and the march continued on another route, eventually ending up near Orlando High School. The crowd of between 3,000 and 10,000 students made their way towards the area of the 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".
A 2006 BBC/SABC documentary corroborated the testimony of Colonel Kleingeld, the police officer who fired the first shot, with eyewitness accounts from both sides. In Kleingeld's account, some of the children started throwing stones as soon as they spotted the police patrol, while others continued to march peacefully. Colonel Kleingeld drew his handgun and fired a shot, causing panic and chaos. Students started screaming and running and more gunshots were fired.
The police loosed their dogs on the protesters, who responded by stoning the dogs to death. The police then began to shoot directly at the children.
One of the first students to be shot dead was 13-year-old Hector Pieterson. He was shot at Orlando West High School and became the symbol of the Soweto uprising. The violence escalated, as bottle stores and beer halls—seen as outposts of the apartheid government—were targeted, as were the official outposts of the state. The violence abated by nightfall. Police vans and armoured vehicles patrolled the streets throughout the night. Emergency clinics were swamped with injured and bloody children. The police requested that the hospital provide a list of all victims with bullet wounds. The hospital administrator passed this request to the doctors, but the doctors refused to create the list. Doctors recorded bullet wounds as abscesses.
The number of people who died is usually given as 176 with estimates up to 700. The original government figure claimed only 23 students were killed, the number of wounded was estimated to be over a thousand people.
Youth Day could be a conflict-ridden date, but instead it serves to remind South Africa of the importance of its youth and brings across the message that something like “the Soweto riots” should never happen again.