16 June and the Soweto Uprising: Why We Celebrate Youth Day.

Youth Day, as it is popularly known, is a day in which South Africans honour the youth that was ambushed by the apartheid regime police in Soweto on 16 June 1976. On the day over 500 youths were killed.

The Bantu Education Act and the Soweto Uprising

Let’s rewind a little further to January of 1954, when the Bantu Education Act came into effect, making it compulsory for black children to attend government schools and learn specific subjects in English and Afrikaans. Prior to this, most black children only had access to schools run by missions that were understaffed and poorly attended. The Bantu education system wasn’t much better and featured separate schools and universities, poor facilities, overcrowded classrooms and inadequately trained teachers, resulting in a lack of quality education for black children.

In January of 1976, the government mandated that all school subjects be taught in Afrikaans. This decision caused an uproar amongst parents, teachers and students, so later that year, on 16 June, 16-year-old Antoinette Sithole and an estimated 20,000 students from Soweto and the surrounding secondary and high schools, planned to peacefully protest Afrikaans as the primary teaching language in schools.

Thousands of students gathered to protest from their schools to Orlando Stadium in Soweto. Little did they know it would go on to become one of the most tragic, yet pivotal, protests in all of South Africa’s history.

Singing ‘Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika, which means ‘God Bless Africa’ – a song banned by the apartheid regime, the students made their way through the streets of Soweto when police randomly opened fire on them. In the confusion and chaos, Sithole’s 13-year-old brother, Hector Pieterson was fatally shot. 

Photojournalist, the late Sam Nzima, was covering the protest for The World, a Johannesburg newspaper, when he captured the iconic image of Pieterson’s lifeless body being carried through the streets with Sithole crying hysterically by his side. The photograph was published across the globe and Pieterson came to symbolise the uprising, giving the world a shocking glimpse into the sheer brutality of apartheid.

The students’ brave efforts resulted in international pressure and sanctions against the South African government to make changes to its educational policies, and in 1995, the newly-elected democratic government declared that the 16th of June would be Youth Day – to serve as a reminder of the progress our country has made regarding equality and equal opportunity for all youth. 

Soweto has come a long way since the uprising of 1976. The name Soweto is an abbreviation for South Western Townships. The township itself was built around the informal settlements of the first mine workers who came to the area during the gold rush of the late-1800s.

It has become popular with travellers from around the world who come to visit Vilakazi Street, which is one of the stops on the Johannesburg Political and Historical Tour. This famous street was home to two Nobel peace prize winners; Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the late former president Nelson Mandela.

Not far from here is the Hector Pieterson Memorial and Museum, which you can visit on the Soweto and Apartheid Museum Tour. It was established in the early 1990s and commemorates the role of the students who took part in the protest of 1976 and the people who died in the aftermath, fighting for freedom, democracy and peace.

We remember them

The events of the day highlight a few individuals who took part in the protest. Among those killed, was Hastings Ndlovu, the first child to die from the shootings and 12 year old Hector Pieterson. We also remember Tsietsi Mashinini, who lead the students in protest.

Hector Pieterson

Hector was one of the casualties of the 1976 uprising. He was killed by a shot fired directly at him, contrary to police claims that he was killed by a bullet ‘ricocheting off the ground’. Pieterson was rushed to a nearby clinic where he was pronounced dead. He was 12 at the time of his death.

The Hector Pieterson Memorial and Museum was later opened in Soweto near the place where he was shot in Orlando West, on 16 June 2002. This was done in the honour of Hector and those who died around the country in the 1976 uprising.

Hastings Ndlovu

Although the media reports named Hector as the first child to die on 16 June 1976, Hastings Ndlovu was in fact the first child to be shot according to police records. Ndlovu’s death did not become as iconic as Hector Pieterson’s because no photographer was present to record it and his name was not immediately known.

Tebogo ‘Tsietsi’ Mashinini

Tsietsi Mashinini was born on 27 January 1957 in Central Western Jabavu, Soweto. Mashinini became a historic icon for his contribution in student politics that led to the protests of 16 June 1976. On 13th June 1976, about 500 Soweto students met at the Orlando Donaldson Community Hall to discuss ways and means of confronting and challenging the Department of Bantu Education. 

At the time that the peaceful protest march was agreed upon, Mashinini was the president of Soweto Students Representative Council (SSRC).

The horrific events of 16 June resulted in Mashinini becoming the most wanted man in the country. The police offered a R500 reward for anyone with information that would lead to his arrest. In August 1976 Mashinini left South Africa for Botswana and later proceeded to the West Coast of Africa. He finally settled in Liberia where he was met by his death in 1990.

16 June after a democratic South Africa

Although the protests of 16 June 1976 resulted in a number of casualties, the youth of 1976 played a role in fighting and overcoming the inequality and oppression caused by apartheid.

Today, 16 June is a South African public holiday. There are Youth Day celebrations which are held country wide in order to empower individuals of all ethnicities in South Africa and to remember those who lost their lives.

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