The student uprising that began in Soweto in June 1976 was a defining moment in South African history. The revolt was sparked off by a government ruling that Afrikaans should be used on an equal basis with English in black secondary schools. While this was feasible in some rural areas, it was quite impossible in the townships, where neither pupils nor teachers knew the language.
On June 16, student delegates from every Soweto school launched their long-planned mass protest march through the township and a rally at the Orlando football stadium. Incredibly, details of the plan were kept secret from the omnipresent impimpis (informers). Soon after the march started, however, the police attacked, throwing tear gas and then firing. The crowd panicked, and demonstrators started throwing stones at the police. The police fired again. Out of this bedlam came the famous photograph of the first student to die, Hector Pieterson, bleeding at the mouth, being carried by a friend, while his sister Antoinette looks on in anguished horror.
The police retreated to Orlando East, and students rushed to collect the injured and dead, erect barricades, and destroy everything they could belonging to the municipal authority, including beer halls. The attacks heightened the antagonism between the youth and many older people who thought that class boycotts were irresponsible, given the students’ already dismal employment prospects. Students responded angrily, accusing their elders of apathy in the face of oppression, which they attributed in part to drunkenness. In a society that has traditionally regarded respect for the old as sacrosanct, this was a historic departure and its effects still reverberate throughout South Africa’s townships.
In the days following June 16, all Soweto schools were closed indefinitely, thousands of police were stationed throughout the township, and police brutality continued unabated. In the face of worldwide condemnation the government ascribed the violence to Communist agitation, citing as evidence the clenched-fist salutes of the students, though this was really an indication of their support for South Africa’s Black Consciousness Movement, founded by Steve Biko. Meanwhile, rebellion spread to other townships, particularly in Cape Town. In Soweto, schools did not reopen until 1978, by which time many students had abandoned any hope of formal education. Some had left the country to join the military wings of the ANC and PAC, while others stayed at home, forming “street committees” to politicize and police the communities. Others drifted into unemployment.
Now the armed struggle is over, the problems that face the former students of 1976 are manifold. As their parents warned, their lack of qualifications counts against them in the job market, even if June 16 is now a national holiday, during which they are praised for their role in the struggle. The street committees have dissolved, but the guns remain.