Rebuilding Foundations

An exploration of international development work in Africa

A Brief History of South Africa, Part V

The Soweto uprisings of 1976 will always be remembered as a time in ZA history in which black students took to the streets to protest apartheid.  Specifically, they were protesting the government’s requirement that certain school subjects be taught in Afrikaans.  Below is an excerpt from the excellent novel Thoughts in a Makeshift Mortuary by Jenny Hobbs (1989) that explains the situation much more eloquently than I could.



The black township of Soweto lies to the south-west of Johannesburg, just far enough away to be out of sight of the nearest white suburb.  Nobody knows how many people live in its eight-five square kilometres, but estimates range from a million upwards.  It is not a shanty town.  The small row houses are built of brick and cement blocks and though they are often badly finished, poorly serviced and overcrowded, each stands on its own small piece of ground and rents are low.  Soweto could have been considered a major achievement in sub-economic housing were it not for the fact that its inhabitants have to live there or in a similar ‘black’ area, even those who can afford better.

Since half the black population of South Africa is under twenty, Soweto has many schools.  At the beginning of 1976 the Nationalist government, wishing to promote the use of its mother tongue among black people (who seemed unaccountably to prefer English), decreed that certain school subjects should be taught in Afrikaans.  Letters were sent out by the Department of Bantu Education, and a great shout of resistance went up from teachers, parents and pupils.  By May, dozens of schools were out on strike and a black Afrikaans teacher had been stabbed with a screwdriver by a pupil.  By the beginning of June, … pupils were refusing to write their exams in Afrikaans. They began to throw stones at the policemen who were sent out to investigate the unrest.  Soweto was buzzing like a kicked-over beehive.

People who saw how angry the pupils were becoming sent urgent telegrams to the Department, but they were not taken seriously.  On 16 June there was a protest march by ten thousand pupils that converged on the Orlando West High School.  It was peaceful at first.  The pupils were mostly adolescents and those in their early twenties who were still trying to beat the odds and gain a Matric certificate, though a lot of little brothers and sisters tagged along.  They walked in their school uniforms, called out slogans and carrying dustbin lids and banners saying ‘Away With Afrikaans!’ and ‘We Are Not Boers’, angry but having fun at the same time.  It was good to be missing school and showing the government that they weren’t going to be pushed around like their parents.

There were armoured troop carriers and policemen with guns and batons and police dogs lined up in front of the school.  As the crowd of taunting, jubilant, fist-waving schoolchildren approached, an order was given and teargas canisters were fired.  Holding clothes over their mouths and noses, the pupils stood their ground and let fly with stones and half bricks.  Warning shots were fired over their heads, but the stones kept coming.  The policemen were ordered to lower their rifles.  In the volley of shots that turned the crowd into a fleeing rout, a thirteen-year-old boy called Hector Petersen was shot dead.

The people of Soweto erupted in fury.  It was the beginning of days of rioting, burning, and killing.  By the end of June when the worst was over, 176 were dead, well over a thousand injured, and twenty-four schools, three clinics, nine post offices, eighteen bottle stores, eighteen beerhalls, fourteen business premises, three libraries, one court building, nineteen shops, two community halls, nineteen houses, forty-two Administration Board buildings and 114 vehicles had been looted and burned.  The police had arrested dozens of black leaders.  When the schools re-opened again on 22 July, they were mostly deserted.  Neither parents nor police could make the pupils go back to school.


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