On this day in 1976 Soweto literally exploded as school children and police clashed in what has become known as the “Soweto Riots” or “Soweto Uprising”. An estimated 20 000 students from local Sowetan schools took to the streets of the township to protest the introduction of Afrikaans as the medium of instruction in local schools. It was really the beginning of the end of the “Apartheid Regime”, but it would still take almost 20 years before a government elected by the majority of the people actually stepped into power. Between then and now there have been many changes in South Africa, although the ugly head of racism still rears itself and fingers will get pointed and arguments will get thrown about.
Unfortunately amongst the many casualties of 1976 was truth and justice. Both would be sorely tried when the dust settled, or when the blood dried. The figure mentioned in the Wikipedia page about the uprising reads: 176 deaths (with some estimates ranging up to 700) and 4000 injured, We will never know either because the government knew that they had used excessive force and had a serious problem on their hands, and they claimed that only 23 students had been killed.
The name most associated with the students is that of Hector Pieterson (also spelt Pietersen) who was gunned down by the South African police and carried by Mbuyisa Makhubo to a local clinic and declared dead on arrival. How many people still remember that name? I am sure it is ingrained in the psyche of many Black South Africans from that generation, and unwittingly led to Hector becoming somewhat of an icon.
As a white South African schoolboy my experience of the events then is very different to that of Black school children so I can never really know the horror of what the riots were like as they ebbed and flowed throughout the country. I am sure that the police who faced those mobs were equally frightened of what may happen to them if they were overrun by a mob. You can be assured that mob justice would prevail, and in later years that could also entail “necklacing” which became yet another form of protest and execution. The Nationalist government was never able to justify their reactions to the riots, relying on propaganda, censorship and oppression of media. The concept of “fake news” would be very familiar to them, because they used it all the time.
Was it worth it? there are those who would argue that it achieved nothing, yet today the national party is gone, and so is grand apartheid, although it has been replaced by grand corruption and cadre deployment by the ruling party. Apartheid is still practiced under the title “black economic empowerment (later BBBEE)” banner and things have not really changed in the lives of the very poor; schools are still without proper toilets or running water, shacks still abound in the poorer parts of the cities, and the poor people still battle to eke out a living while the corrupt line their pockets. What would Hector Pieterson have to say if he saw what South Africa has become?
In Soweto you can visit the June 16th student uprising-memorial in Avalon Cemetery or alternatively the Hector Pieterson Monument And Museum is worth the visit. I know that many would question the neutrality and objectivity of the museum, but I know I came away with a different vision of the events of that fateful day. My visits happened in 2011/2012, so things may be slightly different now.
South Africa has never been the same since 16 June 1976, and we must respect the fact that children died for a cause they believed in.
Rest in peace all of those who never went home on that day.
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