This day some forty years ago (June 16, 1976), thousands of South African school children took to the streets to protest the racism and what they called insufficient education.
Hundreds of the protesters lost their lives that day, but ever since, this became a turning point for the country’s social and political atmosphere.
The marches by Soweto students were drawn around a unifying issue of immediate concern to the young people. The Apartheid government introduced Afrikaans, the language of their white rulers, as a teaching medium in black classrooms in 1974, with a curriculum dedicated by the then Department of Bantu Education.
Bantu Education Act was introduced in 1953 leading to the rise of the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM) and the formation of South African Students Organisation (SASO). These movements sparked political consciousness among students with others joining in the wave of anti-Apartheid groups. When the language of Afrikaans alongside English was made compulsory as a medium of instruction in schools, black students began mobilizing themselves.
On that historic day, around 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. Unfortunately, some met their death, when heavily armed police fired teargas and later live ammunition on demonstrating students.
The shooting and attack against peaceful demonstrators led to a widespread revolt against the Apartheid government which spread from Soweto where it was begun, to the rest of the country and carried on to the following year.
Images of the police brutality, attracted international criticism as the South African cruelty was exposed to the rest of the world. The brutality brought political activists even closer to fight for liberation.
A leading figure in the movement that led to the uprising, Dan Montsitsi noted that the violence experienced at the time was caused by the police.
“The violence that came in 1976 was not the violence that was caused by the students, it was the violence of the apartheid police who shot at us, mostly at the back when we were running away. The response obviously was a rain of stones to protect ourselves. And we began to attack with stones and they started to shoot,” Montsitsi said.
“What June 16 did was to ignite the tinderbox. All we did was to light the fuse that made South Africa to explode,” he added.
The continuous push for liberation led to the collapse of the oppressive regime, paving a way for Nelson Mandela to be elected as the country’s first black President in 1994.
But 40 years on from Soweto, racism still prevails. One example being the latest case of a South African woman (white) who shared racist comments on her Facebook page, 20 years after the end of apartheid in the country. Penny Sparrow was charged an equivalent of $9, 916 for comparing black beach goers to monkeys.
The ruling court in KwaZulu-Natal province found Penny guilty of hate speech and said that the money would go to a charity organization that deals with cultural and heritage issues.
The 1976 moment has formed a reference point for student activists today and continues to inspire young people to take part in changing governments in Africa.
In the recent past, South African students have taken to the streets to protest over fees charged on higher education. Although there’s been great improvement among communities of black people, there is a divide between the haves and have-nots leading to #Feesmustfall protests by university students.
"What has changed? Nothing has changed," Seth Mazibuko, one of the organizers of the 1976 Soweto protest who is today the head of the June 16 Youth Development Foundation was quoted by France 24. "When we were fighting, we were saying doors must be opened to all. Now these doors, when they open, they're closed for those who do not have money."
Image credit: Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images