Class of '76

26th May 2006 at 01:00
In June 1976, black children in South Africa walked out of school and into a confrontation with armed police. David Rosenberg looks at how they changed their country

Next month, it will be 30 years since students from Orlando West Junior High in Soweto, a South African township, walked out of class. They were protesting against educational apartheid - a legally sanctioned system that condemned black students to overcrowded, under-resourced separate schools, with few qualified teachers. At the time the South African government spent R644 annually on each white child's education, and just R42 on each black child. (One rand was worth around 65 pence at the time.) Education in "white" schools was free; black parents had to pay towards their children's schooling.

In 1976, the government added insult to injury by enforcing a decree that black schools must teach maths, social sciences, geography and history in Afrikaans -the language of those who drafted the apartheid laws. Deputy Minister of Bantu Education, Punt Janson, declared: "I have not consulted the African people on the language issue and I'm not going to."

This decree magnified the injustice that black students and teachers already felt. After seven schools joined the boycott against Afrikaans teaching, the Soweto Students Representative Council called a mass protest for June 16.

From 12 assembly points, thousands of students in carnival spirit marched towards Orlando Stadium. They waved placards mocking Prime Minister John Vorster: "If we must do Afrikaans, Vorster must do Zulu!" Suddenly, the police blocked their path and ordered them to disperse. The students defied them and sang the banned anthem Nkosi Sikelele (God Bless Africa). The police released dogs and fired teargas. In the chaos some students retreated and scattered, others threw stones and the police fired live ammunition. Reinforcements arrived with rifles, stun guns and armoured vehicles. For three days emergency clinics were swamped with children nursing gunshot wounds.

One of the first fatalities was 12-year-old Hector Pieterson. The shocking image of his limp body being carried by Mbuyisa Makhubo, with Hector's sister Antoinette running alongside them, was broadcast across the world.

Another student, 15-year-old Hastings Ndlovu, was shot earlier and lay in a coma. He died, too. His father, a teacher, had fully supported the protest.

Five hundred Soweto teachers resigned in solidarity with the students, and local workers went on strike for three days.

Within a month the government dropped its Afrikaans decree, but the protests had advanced beyond this single grievance. Unrest in Soweto spread to other townships and continued for a year. In August 1976, the security forces killed 33 people in Port Elizabeth and 92 died over eight weeks in Cape Town. Young people were the main victims.

In the 1980s, students returned to the streets in force, singing: "In Soweto they shot us down but we will rise up united. A heavy load, a heavy load, and it will take some real strength."

Initiating further school boycotts, students demanded: "Liberation now, education later." Inspired by their children, black South Africans and white supporters of all ages joined the struggle. A decade later the apartheid regime surrendered. Young people fought as if they had nothing to lose, but they never reclaimed their own right to education.

In South Africa, June 16 is now a national holiday called Youth Day. In Soweto, the Hector Pieterson Museum recalls a generation who sacrificed their education and even their lives for freedom. But how was it that 30 years ago, school students led this struggle, and what challenges do young people face in South Africa today?

Heidi Holland, a South African writer, describes Soweto as "a vast impoverished and violent city - a forsaken and hostile place". Yet it also has mansions and millionaires. Residents have included Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu. Former national football captain and Leeds United defender, Lucas Radebe, grew up there. "Soweto" sounds African, but is merely an acronym for South Western Townships. Vusi Mahlasela, a musician imprisoned as a youth for protesting, defines a township as "a ship on its way to town that never gets there".

Soweto's town was Johannesburg, with its burgeoning mining industry. White mine-owners and city administrators wanted black labour, but not black residence. In 1904, a labour reserve was established at Klipspruit, 24 kilometres from Johannesburg's centre. In 1948, 64 sq km around Klipspruit was assigned to accommodate workers. This fusion of neighbourhoods was renamed Soweto.

Thousands of two-room houses, without running water or electricity, stretched along nameless, treeless streets. Its population grew. So did poverty and overcrowding. Sowetans hinted at future rebellion in 1955 when the Congress of the People gathered in Kliptown to adopt a manifesto for a democratic South Africa. Their Freedom Charter demanded: "There shall be equal status in schools for all national groups; all people shall have equal right to use their own languages; the doors of learning and culture shall be opened; education shall be free, universal and equal."

This vision seemed utopian because in 1953, Hendrik Verwoerd (later, prime minister) had established a completely segregated Bantu education system, preparing black children to be "hewers of wood and drawers of water". He declared: "Natives must be taught that equality with Europeans is not for them." In June 1976, graffiti on school entrances read: "Enter to learn, leave to serve."

Few black learners progressed beyond four years of schooling, and options for further education were limited. The tiny minority reaching university were confined to black-only colleges after 1959.

Soweto's population mushroomed in the 1960s, but no new schools were built.

The government constructed schools instead in Bantustans (black "homelands") far from "white" areas. Most young Sowetans refused to move there for secondary education, so their schooling ended prematurely and they drifted into street gangs.

But the political elite's racial fears clashed with the economic demands of South Africa's business leaders who wanted a better-trained workforce. The commercial argument won. Between 1972 and 1976 many township schools were built. Enrolment in Soweto's secondaries trebled, with profound cultural and political consequences. Despite school conditions, students were proud to be learners rather than suffering a hazardous, dead-end existence in street gangs.

Meanwhile, a black consciousness movement, focusing on apartheid's psychological affects, was forming in colleges. Its charismatic leader, Steve Biko, proclaimed: "The most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed."

The movement's message of self-respect, and its confidence in young people as agents of change, contrasted starkly with parental pessimism. School students were ready to respond.

The events of June 16 are preserved vividly and poignantly in the memories of participants. Soweto businessman Dan Moyane recalls how the day started:

"We were singing, it was jovial, the mood, exciting, and with the placards we started going."

"I was 10 years old when the Soweto uprising took place," says social worker Ana Radebe. "We went to our school, but we were told to go back to our homes... On our way home we could see the police troops, hippos (water-throwing police trucks), helicopters... Students were scattered all over the place running for cover. They had their faces covered with clothes to avoid the teargas."

Hector Pieterson's older sister, Antoinette, was hiding near her school when the confrontation started. "I came out of hiding and saw Hector, and I called him and he came over. There was a shot and I ran back to my hiding place. When I looked out I couldn't see Hector."

Police chiefs blamed a ricochet. The postmortem revealed a direct hit. Sam Nzima, whose photograph of Hector's body shocked the world, said: "I saw a child fall down. Under a shower of bullets I rushed forward and went for the picture. It had been a peaceful march. The children were told to disperse and they started singing Nkosi Sikelele. The police were ordered to shoot."

The government closed Nzima's newspaper, The World, but that couldn't alter reality. "Those young people changed the face of South Africa," he insists.

Hector Pieterson's mother was left without a son - or even a picture of him. Journalists borrowed precious family pictures, but never returned them. Mbuyisa Makhubo, who tried to save Hector, was harassed by the authorities and fled. He contacted his mother in 1978 from Nigeria. She died in 2004 without hearing from him again. "We were excited, we were angry, we were throwing stones," admits Thabo Mnisi. "The police started looking for me, they raided my house. Some of my friends were killed. I had to leave." Mnisi is back now, working as a doctor.

Many young people went into exile to train for armed resistance. Some reached Botswana, Swaziland and Lesotho, and continued studying. The education of those who remained was severely disrupted or halted completely. But Sibongile Mkhabela, who today heads the Nelson Mandela Children's Fund, remembers "the collective consciousness of a community, its togetherness: workers, kids, teachers, all going the same way forward".

She says that 1976 was "beautiful rather than sad".

When South Africa's first democratic government created the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1996, its Soweto hearings recorded graphic descriptions by participants. Community worker Ellen Kuzwayo, later an African National Congress MP, gave evidence in Regina Mundi Church Hall, home of many protest meetings. She said: "I can forgive the government for what they did to adults, but not for what they did to the children."

The uprising's significance was felt in Britain, too. "Young people thought education was important enough to die for," says Lela Kogbara, chair of UK-based Action for Southern Africa. "In 1976, the consequences of apartheid came alive for people globally." Looking at young people in South Africa now, she hopes, "this generation can hold the dream of social justice".

Jerry Bafana Maholo does. A student in Soweto today, he has been learning about his predecessors. "It is so sad when I think of it, because I know, if I was there, I would have joined them. They were fighting for the next generation's rights."

South Africa's new administrators inherited a society where every structure was deformed to privilege a minority at the expense of the majority. They have struggled to fashion an integrated, equitable education system.

Progress is slow, but with thousands of new classrooms, more qualified teachers, adult literacy programmes, democratic school-governing structures and learners' councils, increased electrification and telephone connections, improved sanitation and water connections for many schools, the achievements are tangible.

A new curriculum designed for 21st-century multiracial South Africa, emphasising life skills, has been introduced, but a recent report says two-thirds of rural pupils have parents insufficiently educated to help them with homework.

The crude racial barriers, which demeaned, suppressed and maltreated black people, circumscribing their lives from cradle to grave, have been dismantled, but new challenges abound. The oppressors of the young are no longer the government or police, but crime, unemployment and HIVAids. The struggle for political freedom is over, but the fight against rural and urban poverty is still in its infancy.

David Rosenberg is citizenship co-ordinator at Hanover Primary School, London

* Make the Link

* Link Community Development works on long-term educational projects in South Africa and has established many links between schools in the UK and South Africa and other African countries. A Soweto Uprising school pack can be downloaded from their website.

* School Day, South Africa will be interactive on BBC News 24 digital and streamed online on BBC News online, on Wednesday June 14. News 24 will spend the day in a Soweto school asking how life has changed. Meet pupils and teachers, and share the school day from breakfast and the school run, through lessons, lunch and breaks, to the journey home. Watch on a whiteboard and send in questions and ideas during the broadcast.



KS2 Find out about Sam Nzima, Desmond Tutu, Ellen Kuzwayo, and Nelson Mandela. What have they done since 1976?

KS 3-4 Examine how the legal structure of apartheid enshrined daily injustice and how this affected the education system. Discuss the methods of protest and why they had a global impact. Research the origins of the anti-apartheid movement in Britain and its development; consider its tactic of boycotting South Africa politically, culturally and economically.


KS 2-3 Tell the story of June 16, highlighting the students' courage in fighting injustice, the value they put on equality in education, how their actions helped bring democracy to South Africa, and how their uprising is remembered as Youth Day. Describe the demands of the Freedom Charter.


KS 2-3 Encourage students to put themselves in the roles of the key actors in the events of June, 1976 (ie students, teachers, parents, police chief and reporters). Try to understand and act out their motivations.

Historymedia studies

KS 3-4 Discuss how we know today about the events in Soweto. Assess the impact of Hector Pieterson's image in print and broadcast media. Discuss how important personal testimony is in recording historical events. Research how different newspapers reported the events at the time.

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