History Detective

Soweto Uprising during apartheid South Africa

Episode Summary

Learn about the student uprising at Soweto during apartheid South Africa.

Episode Notes

History Detective takes you on a journey through the eyes of the courageous students of Soweto who, in 1976, decided to rise against injustice. We explore the harrowing events of that fateful day, where peaceful protests turned into a turning point in the struggle for freedom.

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Episode Transcription

Hi, this is Kelly Chase, and you are listening to "History Detective," a podcast where I delve into the past to uncover the mysteries of history. Then, I explore how that story can be reimagined through song. This is Case 39: The    Soweto Uprising.

One way that oppressive governments try to control people is by controlling education. In apartheid South Africa, that is exactly what the government tried to do with the introduction of laws suppressing black Africans' access to quality education. But in 1976, the students of the Soweto township decided to fight back. This became known as the Soweto Uprising. This protest had a tragic outcome; however, this event became a turning point in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa.

Firstly, a little bit of background about Soweto. The word is a blend of the words South-West Township because it is southwest of the city of Johannesburg. In Australia, the word "township" means a small town, but in South Africa, the word has a different meaning. It is a segregated suburb which, during apartheid, was officially designated for black occupation. But unlike the Australian definition, it is definitely not small. The population of Soweto in 2023 was 1.8 million.

The control of education by the apartheid government began in 1953 with the introduction of the Bantu Education Act. Before this time, much of the education of African children was conducted by Church-run mission schools. The Bantu Education Act removed the control of African education from the Ministry of Education to the Ministry of Native Affairs. Dr. Verwoerd, who was the Minister for Native Affairs, said the following in parliament: “When I have control of Native Education, I will transform it so that the Native will be taught from childhood to realize that equality with Europeans is not for them... people who believe in equality are not desirable teachers for them.” He was also quoted as saying, “What is the use of teaching the Bantu child mathematics when it cannot be used in practice? That is quite absurd.” So, this was the man who was now in charge of education for black children in South Africa.

The Act brought an end to any subsidies given to the mission schools, and so, most of the schools were forced to close. Less money was spent on black children than on white children, and the student-teacher ratios rose from 42:1 in 1946 to 58:1 in 1967. As a teacher, the idea of 58 students in one class is mind-boggling. The Bantu Education Act also set a limited vocation-based curriculum, which means that black children were not even given opportunities for higher education.

Six years later, in 1959, another Act was passed to ban black students from white universities. These changes by the apartheid government were trying to ensure that the role of black people in society was one of laborer, worker, and servant only. Stopping their access to education was the government’s way of ensuring they could never rise above this level.

There had been some resistance to the Bantu Education Acts, such as the 1955 school strikes and the formation of organizations such as the South African Students Organization. But a tipping point came in 1974 when the Minister for Bantu education introduced the Afrikaans Medium Decree. Afrikaans is a Germanic language that developed in South Africa among the descendants of European colonists. It is similar in sound to Dutch; however, it is a distinct language. Black South Africans spoke their own languages, but these languages had been ignored in their education, and they were mostly instructed in their second language, English. Imagine going to school and suddenly having to learn math, science, and history in a language that you did not fully understand. Think about how much that would set your education back. Placards later confiscated by the police had slogans such as “To hell with Afrikaans” and “Kruger, we hate your daredevil language!

It is also important to consider the teachers. Many teachers were not fluent in Afrikaans. How were they to deliver quality education in a language they could not confidently speak?

Prior to the student march on the 16th of June, many of the stakeholders had been discussing the issue. One of the directors of the school board approached the Department of Bantu Education explaining how forcing children to learn in Afrikaans would hamper their education, but the government refused to listen. This same school leader, Mr. Mahlangu, defied the government, and in 1975, instructed the teachers to use only English rather than Afrikaans. He was fired, his replacement was also fired, and then 7 board members resigned in solidarity.

Both parent and teacher organizations tried to object to the new laws to no avail. The government was steadfast and needless to say, the students themselves were not happy. So, the students took matters into their own hands. So much so that at the meeting 3 days before the march, the organizers made a pact that parents should not be involved, nor even be told about the planned protest. The student leaders were anxious that if parents found out, they would be worried for their children’s safety and try to stop the march from going ahead.

The Soweto Students Action Committee organized the high school students to march to the Orlando Stadium to protest against the government’s new language policy on June 16th, 1976. This was a well-organized protest orchestrated by 3 schools. Their plan was to march from their schools, collecting other students – who may not know about the protest – along the way, meet at the town hall, and then continue to the stadium. I think it's important to remember that they were children.

One of the student leaders of the march was aware of the imminent danger posed by the police to their peaceful protest. At 9 am, he was reported to have jumped onto a tractor to appeal to the students. He said, “Brothers and Sisters, I appeal to you - keep calm and cool. We have just received a report that the police are coming. Don't taunt them, don't do anything to them. Be cool and calm. We are not fighting.” This sentiment is echoed in many of the placards that the students made. They read, “Don’t shoot, we are not fighting.”

But unfortunately, the police did shoot. And sadly, many of the people who died from gunshot wounds that day were shot in the back. They were shot not as they were running towards the police, but shot unarmed as they were running away.

If you look up the Soweto Uprising on Google, you will inevitably see the image of a young man in overalls carrying the dead body of a young schoolboy, with a distressed young woman running beside him. That is the incredibly significant image portraying the death of a young 13-year-old boy, Hector Pieterson, a moment that was a turning point in the Soweto Uprising and a photo that galvanized the international community against the apartheid regime.

When you read the police reports of the day, they are a deliberate attempt to portray the students as unruly and undisciplined, using phrases such as “attacking cars and stoning police.” Additionally, the reports make the police out to be vulnerable victims who were in need of guns and reinforcement. One officer also claims that he issued warnings to the children. This is in direct contrast to eyewitness accounts of the protests.

A journalist wrote the next day, “I did not hear the police give any order to disperse before they threw teargas canisters into the crowd of singing students.” Another journalist writes that the students were “in a jubilant mood” and “at no time did I hear a warning being sounded to the students to disperse.” She continues that “some of them picked up little pebbles and threw them towards the police... I did not think that they were going to shoot at those young children, but they did.”

One student explained that it was the first time they had encountered tear gas. Some of the canisters hit the students, and this created pandemonium. In retaliation, the students began throwing anything they could to try and get the police out of the area.

An eyewitness who lived on the street where the police opened fire made the following statement: “Whoever said the children had anything like stones... It’s not so, it’s a lie. The police just opened fire, and the little boy fell here... Between my house and here.”

The death of the 13-year-old Hector Pieterson spread like wildfire among the protesters, and the students became scared, panicked, and, of course, angry. What started out as a peaceful protest against being taught in Afrikaans now turned into an uprising against the oppressive system of apartheid that lasted for 3 days. Witnessing the police shoot young children bolstered the support for the struggle for freedom against the violent and oppressive apartheid system.

During the Soweto Uprising, the original official death toll was 174 black people and 2 white people, with 1222 wounded, many of whom were shot from behind. However, the 1980 Cillie Commission of Inquiry states that 575 people died as a consequence of the uprising.

In the aftermath of the uprising, there were school closures, an increased police presence, and mass arrests of anyone suspected of being involved as a leader of the protest. But instead of quelling the opposition to apartheid, the Soweto Uprising emboldened people to fight against the oppression.

The 16th of July is still important. In 1994, after apartheid was officially ended, the 16th of July became the national holiday of Youth Day to honour the young people who fought for education, empowerment, and freedom.


Now I would like to play you a song inspired by the anti-apartheid movement Rise Up. 

This Kelly Chase, on the Case.

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