June 16, 1976 – The Soweto Uprising Against Apartheid – A Day That Changed History


The Soweto Students Rise Up To Challenge Their Government

June 16 is a holiday in South Africa. It was on this day 44 years ago that South African children from the township of Soweto rose up against the Apartheid government. They had enough of being told what language they must learn. Instead those children wanted the Government and world to know that they would settle for no less than their right to learn the language of their choice at school.

The Minister Of Bantu Education Refused To Listen To The Black Majority

Punt Janson, the Deputy Minister of Bantu Education at the time, was quoted as saying: “A Black man may be trained to work on a farm or in a factory. He may work for an employer who is either English-speaking or Afrikaans-speaking and the man who has to give him instructions may be either English-speaking or Afrikaans-speaking. Why should we now start quarrelling about the medium of instruction among the Black people as well? … No, I have not consulted them and I am not going to consult them. I have consulted the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa”.

Primary Event That Sparked The Massive Protest

The Soweto students were protesting against an official order which made Afrikaans compulsory in black township schools throughout the country. Their native languages were ruled out and only Afrikaans and English would become the official languages of South Africa.

Soweto School Children Initiate The Protest.’

The resentment grew until 30 April 1976, when children at Orlando West Junior School in Soweto went on strike, refusing to go to school. Their rebellion then spread to many other schools in Soweto. Black South African students protested because they believed that they deserved to be treated and taught equally to white South Africans. A student from Morris Isaacson High SchoolTeboho “Tsietsi” Mashinini, proposed a meeting on 13 June 1976 to discuss what should be done. Students formed an Action Committee (later known as the Soweto Students’ Representative Council),[13] which organised a mass rally for 16 June, to make themselves heard.

June 16, 1976 – The Soweto Uprising

On the morning of 16 June 1976, between 10,000 and 20,000[14] black students walked from their schools to Orlando Stadium for a rally to protest against having to learn Afrikaans in school. The protest was planned by the Soweto Students’ Representative Council’s (SSRC) Action Committee, [15] with support from the wider Black Consciousness Movement. Teachers in Soweto also supported the march after the Action Committee emphasised good discipline and peaceful action.

The students began the march only to find out that police had barricaded the road along their intended route. The leader of the action committee asked the crowd not to provoke the police and the march continued on another route, eventually ending up near Orlando High School.[17] The crowd of between 3,000 and 10,000 students made their way towards the area of the school. Students sang and waved placards with slogans such as, “Down with Afrikaans”, “Viva Azania” and “If we must do Afrikaans, Vorster must do Zulu“.[18]

The police set their trained dog on the protesters, who responded by killing it.[19] The police then began to shoot live ammunition directly at the children.

Hector Pieterson And The Picture Seen Around The World

Among the first students to be shot dead were 15 year old Hastings Ndlovu and 13 year old Hector Pieterson, who were shot at Orlando West High School.[20] The photographer Sam Nzima took a photograph of a dying Hector Pieterson as he was carried away by Mbuyisa Makhubo and accompanied by his sister, Antoinette Sithole. The photograph was seen around the world and became the symbol of the Soweto uprising.

Sam Nzima Speaks About That Photograph

In an interview I recently saw, photographer Nzima spoke about the difficulty he had with the South African authorities. When anyone would leave the scene of a riot or crime, especially those involving the government, the authorities demanded that all cameras be emptied of any film. In those days the film in the camera needed to be taken to a lab to be developed. Any exposure to light before developing ruined the film. So before his camera could be checked by the authorities Nzima removed the film from his camera and hid it in his sock.

I was unable to show that picture for this Blog due to copyright restrictions but if you will search for it on the internet I am confident you will be able to locate it by using key words Hector Pieterson or Sam Nzima.

Police Attacks Continued

The police attacks on the demonstrators continued and 23 people died on the first day in Soweto. Among them was Dr Melville Edelstein, who had devoted his life to social welfare among blacks.

Emergency clinics were swamped with injured and bloody children. The police requested that the hospital provide a list of all victims with bullet wounds to prosecute them for rioting. The hospital administrator passed this request to the doctors, but the doctors refused to create the list. Doctors recorded bullet wounds as abscesses.[13][20]


Many white South African citizens were outraged at the government’s actions in Soweto. The day after the massacre, about 400 white students from the University of the Witwatersrand marched through Johannesburg‘s city centre in protest of the killing of children.[27] Black workers went on strike as well and joined them as the campaign progressed. Riots also broke out in the black townships of other cities in South Africa.

Student organisations directed the energy and anger of the youth toward political resistance. Students in Thembisa organised a successful and non-violent solidarity march, but a similar protest held in Kagiso led to police stopping a group of participants and forcing them to retreat, before killing at least five people while waiting for reinforcements. The violence only died down on 18 June. The University of Zululand‘s records and administration buildings were set ablaze, and 33 people died in incidents in Port Elizabeth in August. In Cape Town 92 people died between August and September.

The Soweto riots are depicted in the 1987 film by director Richard AttenboroughCry Freedom, and in the 1992 musical film Sarafina! and the musical production of the same name by Mbongeni Ngema. The riots also inspired the novel A Dry White Season by Andre Brink, and a 1989 movie of the same title.

The lyrics of the song “Soweto Blues” by Hugh Masekela and Miriam Makeba describe the Soweto Uprising and the children’s part in it

I Was An Eyewitness To The Effect The Soweto Riots Had On The SA Government

The clashes occurred at a time when the South African Government was being forced to “transform” apartheid in international eyes towards a more “benign” form.

Like many of us, I heard about the Soweto Riots but really did not pay much attention to it at that time because I never imagined myself ever going to visit South Africa. But that all changed when I was about to travel to Johannesburg for the first time 5 days before our wedding.

I decided to do some research about the country and read many articles… but the one that stands out to this day appeared in the Minneapolis Star And Tribune shortly before I left Minneapolis. It showed a picture of the Johannesburg International Airport named Jan Smuts. Since there still was Apartheid at that time, I studied that picture very carefully because I wanted to know what to expect when I arrived.

The picture clearly showed that there were signs on bathroom doors saying whites on one door and blacks on other doors. There were also pictures showing markers indicating that black passengers and white passengers needed to stand in two separate lines.

During this past weekend the Minneapolis Star And Tribune offered free use of its archives and after searching I never was able to locate that picture described above, however I did locate an article from UPI dated October, 1979. The UPI article stated that bathrooms had now been desegregated with signs reading Whites Only and Blacks Only painted over.

My More Than 40 Year Old Question Finally Answered

When I landed and went into the airport I fully expected to see the exact same scene that was pictured in the Minneapolis newspaper. But much to my surprise the airport looked like any other typical airport anywhere in the world.

Then after reading the abovementioned UPI article further I realized the airport terminal I saw was located in the domestic area of Jan Smuts. That is because the UPI article stated that it was the domestic terminal that was desegregated in October, 1979, but the international section was desegregated long before  which explains why I never saw signs of Apartheid in the international terminal when I arrived in March, 1979.

The SA Jewish Community Was Very Respectful To Blacks During Those Apartheid Years

From what I saw the Jewish Community treated Blacks with the greatest respect. We had black maids and gardeners; the maids helped look after our children and in many ways they became part of our family.

True, they earned a very low wage, but we had sleeping facilities on the premises for them so they had very little out of pocket expenses to pay for. And we did not require our maid to do any work on Shabbat that we could not do except in those cases that arose when, for instance, the electricity would suddenly stop and we needed a Shabbat Goy to switch it back on.

But it must also be noted that many Black workers would come to South Africa looking for any job to support their families back home in other surrounding African countries where there was very little opportunity to earn a living. We would allow them time off to go home and see their families with one major incentive being to bring much needed money to their families for the very basics such as food, water and clothes. In many cases the money they earned went a lot farther and was worth much more in their home country.

I felt bad for those blacks but felt good we could do our part in trying to help them support their families living outside of South Africa

About the Author
Born and raised in the Minneapolis suburb of St. Louis Park. Married to a South African, we lived in Johannesburg from 1979 to 1996. Made Aliyah with our seven children on Parshat Lech Lecha. BSB Accounting Degree from the University of Minnesota. Investment Portfolio Manager /Fundamental And Technical Analyst. Wrote in-depth research on companies, markets, commodities for leading financial publications. Served in the US Army Reserves Semi Retired spending quality time with my wife, children, grandchildren and attend Kollel while analyzing current events as they relate to Torah and Mitzvahs.
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