The 16th of June 1976 is commemorated in South Africa as Youth Day, in remembrance of the countless children who lost their lives during the Soweto Youth Uprising. To read the list of the names of children killed during the 1976 student protests is beyond heartbreaking – unarmed students gunned down by police for trying to fight for a decent education – the idea is simply unimaginable.
The events of the 16th June, and the days before and after it, were the culmination of decades of disempowerment and subjugation of African children. While education in South Africa prior to apartheid was anything but equal, the introduction of the Bantu Education Act in 1953 was the beginning of the end for the education of non-whites in South Africa. Prior to the implementation of the Act, nearly all of the black schools in SA were mission schools receiving subsidies from the state, but the Act did away with this state-funding, forcing almost all of the mission schools to close down. In addition very few new schools were built in urban areas between 1962 and 1971, forcing parents to move their children to the ‘homelands’ if they wanted any form of education.
However eventually the government gave in to pressure to improve the Bantu Education system in order to meet business’s need for a better trained black workforce, and 40 new schools were built in Soweto in the early 1970s, resulting in an increase in the number of pupils at secondary schools from over twelve thousand in 1972 to nearly thirty-five thousand in 1976. In theory this was an improvement, but in reality it resulted in overcrowded classrooms with the pupil teacher ratio going from 46:1 in 1955 to 58:1 in 1967 – unmanageable numbers for even the best trained teachers, but with only ten percent of African teachers in 1961 having their matric certificates, the situation was beyond dire.
Then came the Afrikaans Medium Decree issued by the Minister of Bantu Education and Development, MC Botha, in 1974. The decree made Afrikaans the compulsory medium of instruction for mathematics and social studies in black schools from Standard 5 onwards. The same rules were not applied to white students, who were taught in their mother tongue. Not only was Afrikaans viewed by many as the language of the oppressor, but trying to grasp the complexities of maths in a language not understood by the students, meant that very few children would acquire the knowledge necessary to pass. The government justified their position by saying that it was advantageous for black children to learn Afrikaans as many of them would ultimately work for Afrikaners, but in reality it was yet another way of oppressing black South Africans.
The response though, by the learners, was perhaps unexpected. With far more children attending high school than before, students began to organise themselves. In 1969 the South African Students Organisation (SASO), which had its national headquarters in Durban, was formed. Influenced by SASO and other organisations such as the Black Peoples’ Convention, the South African Students Movement formed the Soweto Student Representative Council, the committee responsible for planning the June 1976 march.
The plan was for students from Naledi High School to start the march, picking up children from other schools along the way, with everyone eventually congregating at Orlando Stadium. From all reports it would seem that there was no intention of violence on the part of the protestors, but by the 18th June, hundreds of people had lost their lives, with thousands more wounded. The police requested that the hospitals provide a list of all victims with bullet wounds so that they could be prosecuted for rioting, but doctors refused, instead recording the bullet wounds as abscesses.