On June 16, 1976, a demonstration in Soweto, led largely by high school students angered at the apartheid government, was met with a brutal crackdown by police and set off a wave of protests and violent conflicts across South Africa. The day is now immortalised as Youth Day, an annual public holiday in which South Africans remember the significance of the Soweto uprisings and the bravery of those involved, as well as the importance of supporting the youth across the country.
The Afrikaans Medium Decree
Tensions had been simmering for many years under the Bantu education system. Enforced by the apartheid government, Bantu education codified segregated schools, effectively ended the popular missionary schooling for black children and mandated a racist curriculum aimed at moulding black school children into “hewers of wood and drawers of water” – servants for the ruling classes. The resentment reached a boiling point in 1974 with the passage of the Afrikaans Medium Decree, which declared that all black children should be taught equally in English and Afrikaans. Many viewed Afrikaans as “the language of the oppressors,” and both students and teachers vehemently opposed the proclamation.
The Soweto Uprising
Fueled by the changes enforced by the Afrikaans Medium Decree, as well as the poor quality and racist nature of black education, students throughout Soweto organised a peaceful protest on June 16, 1976. That morning, between 5,000 and 15,000 students walked out of their schools and assembled for a march toward Orlando Stadium. Along the path, police formed a wall and demanded the crowd disperse. When the protestors refused, police fired tear gas and released a police dog into the crowd. The students scattered, and in the ensuing chaos, the dog was killed.
Without warning, police opened fire on the unarmed marchers. One of the first to be struck was 12-year-old Hector Pieterson, who was picked up and carried toward a nearby clinic by fellow student Mbuyisa Makhubo. This produced the seminal image of the event: Makhubo carrying Pieterson’s lifeless body in his arms, with Pieterson’s sister running beside them. The event devolved into a full-scale conflict, as police continued shooting protestors and protestors began to riot, targeting apartheid symbols such as government buildings, vehicles and beer halls. Though official government records listed just 23 students killed, the death toll is generally given as 176 with estimates as high as 700. Hector Pieterson, through the iconic photo taken by a local photographer, became an international symbol of the brutality of apartheid and the oppression experienced by black South Africans.
Youth Day Celebrations
Today, Youth Day in South Africa is a day to both honour the courage and sacrifice of the Soweto uprising youths and celebrate all young people. Marches and rallies are often held throughout Soweto in commemoration of the pivotal role young people have played in the battle against apartheid and in many other key aspects of South African history. Many people visit the Hector Pieterson memorial and museum in Orlando West, Soweto, to remember the young man whose sacrifice came to symbolise the injustice of apartheid to so many. Music and dance festivals have also become a traditional way of celebrating the vibrant energy of youth.
Youth Day has also become an opportunity to address the concerns facing today’s young people in South Africa. Various youth advocate groups and government programs use the public holiday to shine a light on the substandard education and poor employment opportunities that have become a reality for many young people. Awareness campaigns, public discussion forums and historical education events have become popular ways to encourage better conditions for young people and ensure that South African youths continue to play a significant role in the country’s future.