What does Youth Day mean to you? In South Africa, Youth Day is a day dedicated to celebrating all young people and honouring the courage and sacrifice of the Soweto Uprising youth.
As a result of a demonstration in Soweto in June 1976, a brutal crackdown by police sparked protests and conflicts around South Africa. Today, the day is celebrated as Youth Day, an annual public holiday in which South Africans remember the significance of the Soweto Uprising and the bravery of those involved, as well as the importance of supporting the country’s youth.
As with any other public holiday, children are looking forward to having an extra day to do their homework and no school. It is a day for adults to sleep in and enjoy a leisurely day with their families, which will be enjoyed by all.
Students throughout Soweto organized a peaceful protest on June 16, 1976, as a result of compulsory Afrikaans instruction in high schools starting in the mid-1970s, particularly in four subjects: Mathematics, Physical Sciences, Geography, and Biology. They were also outraged by the low quality and racist nature of black education. Around 5,000 to 20,000 students walked out of their schools and marched toward Orlando Stadium that morning. Along the path, police formed a wall and demanded the crowd disperse.
Police opened fire on unarmed marchers without warning. Hector Pieterson, 13, was among the first victims, and he was picked up and carried by fellow student Mbuyisa Makhubo as his sister Antoinette ran beside him toward a nearby clinic. As police continued shooting protestors and protestors began rioting against apartheid symbols like government buildings, vehicles and beer halls, the event devolved into a full-scale conflict.
According to official government records, 23 students were killed, but other estimates put the death toll at 176 and this number can increase up to 700. Through the iconic photo taken by local photographer Sam Nzima from The World Newspaper, Hector Pieterson became an international symbol of apartheid and black oppression.
Oppression through inferior education and the 1976 Soweto uprising.
The rise of secondary school attendance contributed to a change in youth culture. Historically, young people spent the time between leaving primary school and obtaining a job (if they were lucky) in gangs, which generally lacked any political awareness. However, secondary school students soon developed their own political sensibilities. This led to the formation of the South African Student Organization (SASO) in 1969.
In spite of Bantu Education intended to ostracize Africans and keep them away from ‘subversive’ ideas, indignation over being given such ‘gutter’ education catalyzed a major resistance, manifested most notably in the 1976 Soweto uprising. A few reform efforts were subsequently made in response to this strong and clear protest, however, they were too late and too little to make a difference. Through the 1990s, there continued to be major disparities in racially separate education.
When high-school students in Soweto began protesting for better education on 16 June 1976, the police responded with teargas and live ammunition. Youth day is a South African national holiday that commemorates all those who lost their lives in the struggle against Apartheid and Bantu Education.
It is generally acknowledged that very little education was conducted in the Bantu Education system in the 1980s, which was subject to almost constant protests. Since 1994 when the first democratic elections and the creation of the government of national unity were held, the legacy of decades of inferior education (underdevelopment, poor self-image, unemployment, crime, etc.) has survived.
The June 16 Youth Uprising was the third major uprising in the country.
There are various factors behind the 1976 student unrest in Soweto, including the introduction of Afrikaans alongside English as a medium of instruction. In 1953, the Apartheid government introduced the Bantu Education Act, which certainly influenced these factors. Hendrik F. Verwoerd became Minister of Native Affairs after integrating the Bantu Education Department into his department. Some policy statements made by the Bantu Education Department, as well as provisions of the Bantu Education Act, were directly responsible for the uprising. 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”.
Why are we remembering this day?
In honour of this day, we remember the brave youths who fought (and died) for the freedom to learn, not to be oppressed intellectually based on race. The fact that this public holiday has its roots in such a tragic incident makes it more than a day to celebrate young people. This event brings to mind the call for accessible education for the greater proportion of the South African population – a fight and injustice still happening today.
When we reflect on this event, we are reminded of the calls for more accessible education for the majority of South Africans, a fight and injustice that continues to this day.