Biko, Turner & the Soweto Uprising

This Sunday we commemorate the anniversary of the Soweto Uprising, which culminated on the 16th June 1976 when hundreds of youth were killed at the hands of the state. It’s widely accepted that the student protests were a response to the government’s intention to introduce Afrikaans as the compulsory medium of instruction in schools. But there are many academics and historians who believe that the student activism that brought about the protests on that fateful day had its roots in Durban.

At the beginning of 1970 the charismatic political philosopher and activist, Richard (Rick) Turner, met Stephen (Steve) Biko, a medical student, and proud African nationalist. The two struck up a political, intellectual, and personal friendship that would ultimately change the course of South Africa.

Steve Biko on the SRC of 1966/67 (top row, third from left)

Steve Biko on the SRC of 1966/67 (top row, third from left)

Biko was admitted to the Durban Medical School at the University of Natal’s “Non-European” section in 1966, and was immediately elected to the Students Representative Council, which was a member of the larger National Union of South African Students (NUSAS). Despite its multiracial membership NUSAS was essentially dominated and controlled by white students. Biko objected to what he viewed as “the intellectual arrogance of white people that makes them believe that white leadership is sine qua non in this country, and that whites are divinely appointed pace-setters in progress.” It was his belief that black people should lead the struggle that resulted in the formation of the most significant new student organisation of the time.

In the last few days of 1968  the South African Students Organisation (SASO) was founded during a meeting attended exclusively by black students at Mariannhill Monastery, a Catholic mission west of Durban whose secondary school, St. Francis, was Biko’s alma mater. SASO offered membership to students of all ‘Black’ sections of the population, which included those assigned to the apartheid categories of ‘African’, ‘Coloured’ and ‘Indian’.

On the other side of the world Rick Turner had just completed his doctoral thesis on the French philosopher and political activist, Jean-Paul Sartre, at the prestigious Sorbonne University in Paris. Encouraged by his research into Sartre and the growing French student movement, on his return to South Africa Turner shared his experiences, first with his students at the universities of Cape Town, Stellenbosch and Rhodes and then, when he moved to Durban, with the youth at the then University of Natal.

Workers on strike, Durban, 1973

Workers on strike, Durban, 1973

As student politics grew more radical, aided by Turner and Biko’s encouragement, the protests, which were initially confined to university politics, increasingly embraced non-student concerns and became instrumental in laying the grounds for the new black trade unions. The connection between students, academics and workers became particularly apparent in what has become known as the Durban Moment, a period of rolling mass action that saw some 61 000 Durban workers go on strike over three months, compared with a national total of 23 000 in the six years between 1965 and 1971.

Many people believe that this industrial action in Durban, and the student’s involvement in it, combined with the formation of SASO, raised the political consciousness of the youth, and it was in this breeding ground that the South African Students Movement, the group responsible for organising the 1976 student protests, was born.

Siphesihle Zulu, a young school student in Durban in 1976:

June 16, it is just quite clear where it came from because there was no other organisation around at that moment; it was the Black Consciousness Movement. In Beatrice Street in Durban, that is where the South African Students’ Organisation and the Black People’s Convention offices were.

When I was a young boy, my uncle who was a pastor, lived in Beatrice Street. So I ended up as a young boy interacting with these people. I would see this tall man, that is, Steve Biko. And there was the short one, Aubrey Mokoape. Before the uprising started I would go there and I would hear them say: ‘On June 16 there is going to be something big that we are organising as an organisation.’ Soweto was going to be the start. And then from Soweto it was going to go to all other parts of the country. So it was really organised. It was not just spontaneous. You can’t just say: ‘All of you wake up and come to such a place to take part in a march’. That’s impossible. Somebody must have been organising it.

The idea was to bring about change as from June 16 onwards; to make sure that everybody was against Afrikaans being pushed down our throats. That was the rallying point… the apartheid regime made a mistake. They gave us something to rally ourselves around.” Remembering 1976: the Soweto uprising and beyond (

Rand Daily Mail, 9th January 1978

Rand Daily Mail, 9th January 1978

Regardless of whether or not there exists a direct connection between the events of the 16th June 1976, and the political climate in Durban at the time, there is no doubt that the influence of Steve Biko and Rick Turner had a profound impact on South Africa. Sadly both of these brilliant young men died at the hands of the apartheid state –  Biko was killed whilst in police custody in September 1977 and Turner assassinated just a few months later in January 1978.

The former offices of South African Students Organisation, located at 86 Beatrice Street (now Charlotte Maxeke Street) form part of the Durban Liberation Heritage Route.

Images courtesy of, and

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