​The June 16 Soweto Youth Uprising

Wednesday, 13 June, 2018 - 11:07

The June 16 1976 Uprising that began in Soweto and spread countrywide profoundly changed the socio-political landscape in South Africa

The June 16 1976 Uprising that began in Soweto and spread countrywide profoundly changed the socio-political landscape in South Africa. Events that triggered the uprising can be traced back to policies of the Apartheid government that resulted in the introduction of the Bantu Education Act in 1953. The rise of the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM) and the formation of South African Students Organisation (SASO) raised the political consciousness of many students while others joined the wave of anti-Apartheid sentiment within the student community.

When the language of Afrikaans alongside English was made compulsory as a medium of instruction in schools in 1974, black students began mobilizing themselves. On 16 June 1976 between 3000 and 10 000 students mobilized by the South African Students Movement's Action Committee supported by the BCM marched peacefully to demonstrate and protest against the government’s directive. The march was meant to culminate at a rally in Orlando Stadium.

On their pathway they were met by heavily armed police who fired teargas and later live ammunition on demonstrating students. This resulted in a widespread revolt that turned into an uprising against the government. While the uprising began in Soweto, it spread across the country and carried on until the following year.

The aftermath of the events of June 16 1976 had dire consequences for the Apartheid government. Images of the police firing on peacefully demonstrating students led an international revulsion against South Africa as its brutality was exposed. Meanwhile, the weakened and exiled liberation movements received new recruits fleeing political persecution at home giving impetus to the struggle against Apartheid. 

Bantu Education Policy

The word ‘Bantu’ in the term Bantu education is highly charged politically and has derogatory connotations. The Bantu Educational system was designed to ‘train and fit’ Africans for their role in the newly (1948) evolving apartheid society. Education was viewed as a part of the overall apartheid system including ‘homelands’, urban restrictions, pass laws and job reservation. This role was one of labourer, worker, and servant only. As H.F Verwoerd, the architect of the Bantu Education Act (1953), conceived it:

“There is no place for [the African] in the European community above the level of certain forms of labour. It is of no avail for him to receive a training which has as its aim, absorption in the European community”

Pre-apartheid education of Africans

It is mistaken however, to understand that there was no pre-apartheid educational marginalization of black South Africans. Long before the historic 1948 white elections that gave the Nationalist Party power, there was a system of segregated and unequal education in the country. While white schooling was free, compulsory and expanding, black education was sorely neglected. Financial underprovision and an urban influx led to gravely insufficient schooling facilities, teachers and educational materials as well as student absenteeism or non-enrolment.

A 1936 Inquiry identified problems, only to have almost nothing done about these needs.

Bantu education and the racist compartmentalizing of education.

In 1949 the government appointed the Eiselen Commission with the task of considering African education provision. The Commission recommended 'resorting to radical measures' for the 'effective reform of the Bantu school system'.

In 1953, prior to the apartheid government's Bantu Education Act, 90% of black South African schools were state-aided mission schools. The Act demanded that all such schools register with the state, and removed control of African education from the churches and provincial authorities. This control was centralized in the Bantu Education Department, a body dedicated to keeping it separate and inferior. Almost all the mission schools closed down. The Roman Catholic Church was largely alone in its attempt to keep its schools going without state aid. The 1953 Act also separated the financing of education for Africans from general state spending and linked it to direct tax paid by Africans themselves, with the result that far less was spent on black children than on white children.

In 1954--5 black teachers and students protested against Bantu Education. The African Education Movement was formed to provide alternative education. For a few years, cultural clubs operated as informal schools, but by 1960 they had closed down.

The Extension of University Education Act, Act 45 of 1959, put an end to black students attending white universities (mainly the universities of Cape Town and Witwatersrand). Separating tertiary institutions according to race, this Act set up separate 'tribal colleges' for black university students. The so-called 'bush' Universities such as Fort Hare, Vista, Venda, Western Cape were formed. Blacks could no longer freely attend white universities. Again, there were strong protests.

Expenditure on Bantu Education increased from the late 1960s, once the apartheid Nationalist government saw the need for a trained African labour force. Through this, more African children attended school than under the old missionary system of education, albeit grossly deprived of facilities in comparison with the education of other races, especially whites.

Nationally, pupil:teacher ratios went up from 46:1 in 1955 to 58:1 in 1967. Overcrowded classrooms were used on a rota basis. There was also a lack of teachers, and many of those who did teach were underqualified. In 1961, only 10 per cent of black teachers held a matriculation certificate [last year of high school]. Black education was essentially retrogressing, with teachers being less qualified than their students.

The Coloured Person's Education Act of 1963 put control of 'coloured' education under the Department of Coloured Affairs. 'Coloured' schools also had to be registered with the government. 'Coloured' education was made compulsory, but was now effectively separated from white schooling.

The 1965 Indian Education Act was passed to separate and control Indian education, which was placed under the Department of Indian Affairs. In 1976, the SAIC took over certain educational functions. Indian education was also made compulsory.

Because of the government's 'homelands' policy, no new high schools were built in Soweto between 1962 and 1971 -- students were meant to move to their relevant homeland to attend the newly built schools there. Then in 1972 the government gave in to pressure from business to improve the Bantu Education system to meet business's need for a better trained black workforce. 40 new schools were built in Soweto. Between 1972 and 1976 the number of pupils at secondary schools increased from 12,656 to 34,656. One in five Soweto children were attending secondary school.

Oppression through inferior education and the 1976 Soweto uprising

An increase in secondary school attendance had a significant effect on youth culture. Previously, many young people spent the time between leaving primary school and obtaining a job (if they were lucky) in gangs, which generally lacked any political consciousness. But now secondary school students were developing their own. In 1969 the black South African Student Organization (SASO) was formed.

Though Bantu Education was designed to deprive Africans and isolate them from 'subversive' ideas, indignation at being given such 'gutter' education became a major focus for resistance, most notably in the 1976 Soweto uprising. In the wake of this effective and clear protest, some reform attempts were made, but it was a case of too little, too late. Major disparities in racially separate education provision continued into the 1990s.

When high-school students in Soweto started protesting for better education on 16 June 1976, police responded with teargas and live bullets. It is commemorated today by a South African national holiday, Youth day, which honors all the young people who lost their lives in the struggle against Apartheid and Bantu Education.

In the 1980s very little education at all took place in the Bantu Education system, which was the target of almost continuous protest. The legacy of decades of inferior education (underdevelopment, poor self-image, economic depression, unemployment, crime, etc.) has lasted far beyond the introduction of a single educational system in 1994 with the first democratic elections, and the creation of the Government of National Unity.

Strikes in the Schools

Presumably, not all students of the earlier generation 'worshipped the school authorities'! The first, recorded stoppages of lessons, (always called strikes in the South African newspapers), and the first riots in African schools occurred in 1920. In February, students at the Kilnerton training centre went on a hunger strike 'for more food'... read on

Cape Schools Join the Revolt

The school students in Cape Town reacted to the news they heard of events in Soweto. A teacher at one of the Coloured schools was later to write: 'We haven't done much by way of teaching since the Soweto riots first began. Kids were restless, tense and confused. 'There is no similar record of what the African children thought, but it is known that they were aware of the extra police patrols that were set up in the townships following June 16. After the first shootings in Cape Town, a teacher at one of the schools recounted... read on

The NUSAS Issue

Throughout the 1960's black students campaigned for the right to affiliate to the National Union of South African Students (NUSAS) and just as steadfastly, the move was vetoed by the campus authorities. NUSAS was also keen to welcome the colleges into their fold. Not only would this make it the largest student organisation in the country, but it would also bring into the liberal ''old all student opponents of the government's apartheid policy.... read on

Down with Afrikaans

Countdown to conflict: The main cause of the protests that started in African schools in the Transvaal at the beginning of 1975 was a directive from the Bantu Education Department that Afrikaans had to be used on an equal basis with English as one of the languages of instruction in the department's secondary schools... read on

The introduction of Afrikaans alongside English as a medium of instruction is considered the immediate cause of the Soweto uprising, but there are a various factors behind the 1976 student unrest. These factors can certainly be traced back to the Bantu Education Act introduced by the Apartheid government in 1953. The Act introduced a new Department of Bantu Education which was integrated into the Department of Native Affairs under Dr Hendrik F. Verwoerd. The provisions of the Bantu Education Act and some policy statements made by the Bantu Education Department were directly responsible for the uprisings. Dr Verwoerd, who engineered the Bantu Education Act, announced that “Natives (blacks) must be taught from an early age that equality with Europeans (whites) is not for them”.

Although the Bantu Education Act made it easier for more children to attend school in Soweto than it had been with the missionary system of education, there was a great deal of discontent about the lack of facilities. Throughout the country there was a dire shortage of classrooms for Black children. There was also a lack of teachers and many of the teachers were under-qualified. Nationally, pupil-to-teacher ratios went up from 46:1 in 1955 to 58:1 in 1967. Because of the lack of proper classrooms and the crippling government homeland policy, students were forced to return to “their homelands” to attend the newly built schools there.

The government was spending far more on White education than on Black education; R644 was spent annually for each White student, while only R42 was budgeted for a Black school child. In 1976 there were 257 505 pupils enrolled in Form 1 at high schools which had a capacity for only 38 000 students.

To alleviate the situation pupils who had passed their standard six examinations were requested to repeat the standard. This was met with great resentment by the students and their parents. Although the situation did not lead to an immediate revolt, it certainly served to build up tensions prior to the 1976 student uprising.

In 1975 the government was phasing out Standard Eight (or Junior Certificate (JC)). By then, Standard Six had already been phased out and many students graduating from Primary Schools were being sent to the emerging Junior Secondary Schools. It was in these Junior Secondary schools that the 50-50 language rule was to be applied.

The issue that caused massive discontent and made resentment boil over into the 1976 uprising was a decree issued by the Bantu Education Department. Deputy Minister Andries Treurnicht sent instructions to the School Boards, inspectors and principals to the effect that Afrikaans should be put on an equal basis with English as a medium of instruction in all schools. These instructions drew immediate negative reaction from various quarters of the community. The first body to react was the Tswana School Boards, which comprised school boards from Meadowlands, Dobsonville and other areas in Soweto. The minutes of the meeting of the Tswana School Board held on 20 January 1976 read:

 "The circuit inspector told the board that the Secretary for Bantu Education has stated that all direct taxes paid by the Black population of South Africa are being sent to the various homelands for educational purposes there. 

"In urban areas the education of a Black child is being paid for by the White population, that is English and Afrikaans speaking groups. Therefore the Secretary for Bantu Education has the responsibility of satisfying the English and Afrikaans-speaking people. Consequently, as the only way of satisfying both groups, the medium of instruction in all schools shall be on a 50-50 basis.... In future, if schools teach through a medium not prescribed by the department for a particular subject, examination question papers will only be set in the medium with no option of the other language".

Teachers also raised objections to the government announcement. Some Black teachers, who were members of the African Teachers Association of South Africa, complained that they were not fluent in Afrikaans. The students initially organised themselves into local cultural groups and youth clubs. At school there was a significant number of branches of the Students Christian Movements (SCMs), which were largely apolitical in character. SASM penetrated these formations between 1974 and 1976. And when conditions ripened for the outbreak of protests, SASM formed an Action Committee on 13 June 1976, which was later renamed the Soweto Student Representative Council (SSRC). They were conscientised and influenced by national organisations such as the Black Peoples' Convention (BPC), South African Student Organisations (SASO)and by the Black Consciousness philosophy. They rejected the idea of being taught in the language of the oppressor.

The uprising took place at a time when liberation movements were banned throughout the country and South Africa was in the grip of apartheid. The protest started off peacefully in Soweto but it turned violent when the police opened fire on unarmed students. By the third day the unrest had gained momentum and spread to townships around Soweto and other parts of the country. The class of 1976 bravely took to the streets and overturned the whole notion that workers were the only essential force to challenge the apartheid regime. Indeed, they succeeded where their parents had failed. They not only occupied city centres but also closed schools and alcohol outlets.

June 16 Soweto Youth Uprising

The introduction of Afrikaans alongside English as a medium of instruction is considered the immediate cause of the Soweto uprising, but there are a various factors behind the 1976 student unrest. These factors can certainly be traced back to the Bantu Education Act introduced by the Apartheid government in 1953. The Act introduced a new Department of Bantu Education which was integrated into the Department of Native Affairs under Dr Hendrik F. Verwoerd. The provisions of the Bantu Education Act and some policy statements made by the Bantu Education Department were directly responsible for the uprisings. Dr Verwoerd, who engineered the Bantu Education Act, announced that “Natives (blacks) must be taught from an early age that equality with Europeans (whites) is not for them”.

Although the Bantu Education Act made it easier for more children to attend school in Soweto than it had been with the missionary system of education, there was a great deal of discontent about the lack of facilities. Throughout the country there was a dire shortage of classrooms for Black children. There was also a lack of teachers and many of the teachers were under-qualified. Nationally, pupil-to-teacher ratios went up from 46:1 in 1955 to 58:1 in 1967. Because of the lack of proper classrooms and the crippling government homeland policy, students were forced to return to “their homelands” to attend the newly built schools there.

The government was spending far more on White education than on Black education; R644 was spent annually for each White student, while only R42 was budgeted for a Black school child. In 1976 there were 257 505 pupils enrolled in Form 1 at high schools which had a capacity for only 38 000 students.

To alleviate the situation pupils who had passed their standard six examinations were requested to repeat the standard. This was met with great resentment by the students and their parents. Although the situation did not lead to an immediate revolt, it certainly served to build up tensions prior to the 1976 student uprising.

In 1975 the government was phasing out Standard Eight (or Junior Certificate (JC)). By then, Standard Six had already been phased out and many students graduating from Primary Schools were being sent to the emerging Junior Secondary Schools. It was in these Junior Secondary schools that the 50-50 language rule was to be applied.

The issue that caused massive discontent and made resentment boil over into the 1976 uprising was a decree issued by the Bantu Education Department. Deputy Minister Andries Treurnicht sent instructions to the School Boards, inspectors and principals to the effect that Afrikaans should be put on an equal basis with English as a medium of instruction in all schools. These instructions drew immediate negative reaction from various quarters of the community. The first body to react was the Tswana School Boards, which comprised school boards from Meadowlands, Dobsonville and other areas in Soweto. The minutes of the meeting of the Tswana School Board held on 20 January 1976 read:

 "The circuit inspector told the board that the Secretary for Bantu Education has stated that all direct taxes paid by the Black population of South Africa are being sent to the various homelands for educational purposes there. 

"In urban areas the education of a Black child is being paid for by the White population, that is English and Afrikaans speaking groups. Therefore the Secretary for Bantu Education has the responsibility of satisfying the English and Afrikaans-speaking people. Consequently, as the only way of satisfying both groups, the medium of instruction in all schools shall be on a 50-50 basis.... In future, if schools teach through a medium not prescribed by the department for a particular subject, examination question papers will only be set in the medium with no option of the other language".

Teachers also raised objections to the government announcement. Some Black teachers, who were members of the African Teachers Association of South Africa, complained that they were not fluent in Afrikaans. The students initially organised themselves into local cultural groups and youth clubs. At school there was a significant number of branches of the Students Christian Movements (SCMs), which were largely apolitical in character. SASM penetrated these formations between 1974 and 1976. And when conditions ripened for the outbreak of protests, SASM formed an Action Committee on 13 June 1976, which was later renamed the Soweto Student Representative Council (SSRC). They were conscientised and influenced by national organisations such as the Black Peoples' Convention (BPC), South African Student Organisations (SASO)and by the Black Consciousness philosophy. They rejected the idea of being taught in the language of the oppressor.

The uprising took place at a time when liberation movements were banned throughout the country and South Africa was in the grip of apartheid. The protest started off peacefully in Soweto but it turned violent when the police opened fire on unarmed students. By the third day the unrest had gained momentum and spread to townships around Soweto and other parts of the country. The class of 1976 bravely took to the streets and overturned the whole notion that workers were the only essential force to challenge the apartheid regime. Indeed, they succeeded where their parents had failed. They not only occupied city centres but also closed schools and alcohol outlets.
 

  • This article was produced for South African History Online on 21-May-2013 and it was first published in the South African History Online website

Photo Courtesy: Zam Nzima

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