Signal contribution of the courageous South African students | ISAAC SANEY
On June 16th, 1976 in the African township of Soweto, on the outskirts of Johannesburg, apartheid South African police massacred 176 Black students, wounding more than 700. The Soweto uprising remains to this day the signal contribution of the infinitely courageous South African students’ movement for justice and social transformation everywhere.
The heroic martyrs of Soweto were part of thousands of students who marched that day to protest the imposition of Afrikaans as mandatory for school instruction for most of the subjects in elementary and secondary school. Afrikaans, a language derived from Dutch, was the language of the ruling elite, the language of the colonization and dispossession of the African majority and their lands. Thus, the racist state was inflicting the oppressor’s language on Black youth. African languages were denigrated, restricted to the subjects of religion, music and social lessons. Under the Bantu Education Act, the education that Africans received was designed to keep them as a source of cheap labour; the compulsory introduction of Afrikaans further deepened the disenfranchisement of Black South Africans. While the immediate impetus for the demonstration was the imposition of Afrikaans, students were fighting for the broader cause of self-determination.
Black youth organized to oppose the racist diktat. On April 30th, students at Soweto’s Orlando West Junior School in Soweto refused to attend school. This profound act of defiance inspired the student-bodies of other schools. On June 13th the Soweto Students’ Representative Council was formed, which called for a June 16th mass rally at the Orlando Soccer Stadium. On June 16th, thousands of unarmed Sowetan students marched singing freedom songs and carrying signs declaring, for example, “Down with Afrikaans”, “Bantu Education – to Hell with it”, “If we must do Afrikaans, Voster [then PM of the racist state] must do Zulu”, and “Viva Azania!”
Black youth organized to oppose the racist diktat. On April 30, students at Soweto’s Orlando West Junior School in Soweto refused to attend class. This profound act of defiance inspired the student bodies of other schools. On June 13, the Soweto Students’ Representative Council was formed, which called for a June 16 mass rally at the Orlando Soccer Stadium. On June 16, thousands of unarmed students marched singing freedom songs and carrying signs declaring, for example, “Down with Afrikaans!”; “Bantu Education — to Hell with It!”; “If We Must Do Afrikaans, Vorster must do Zulu”; and “Viva Azania!”
As they marched to the stadium, the apartheid state’s police blocked the route. With the youth refusing to yield, the police attacked them with teargas and dogs. Unable to break the resistance, police then fired directly into the massed students. Thirteen-year-old Hector Pieterson was the first student killed. The photograph of 18-year-old Mbuyisa Makhubo carrying Hector’s body, as Hector’s sister 17-year-old Antoinette runs next to them, is the iconic image of the massacre. As noted, Hector Pieterson died along with another 175 students, with more than 700 wounded. The hospitals were overwhelmed by the number of casualties. However, despite the brutality that was unleashed, the students fought back against the terror of the apartheid state. Soweto sparked a countrywide rebellion. In the subsequent weeks hundreds of youth were killed by the racist state.
The Soweto Uprising and other Black rebellions that followed in Soweto’s wake created an unprecedented crisis for the racist regime, signalling the collapse of the South African government’s ability to confine black politics within the limits defined and permitted by apartheid. The uprising was a watershed, heralding, as historian Saul Dubow wrote, “the demise of white supremacy and made real the possibility of liberation, perhaps for the first time… An unquenchable spirit of rebellion was becoming manifest…” Soweto ushered in the era of the ungovernability of the townships and black militancy; it was one of the most significant chronological markers in the struggle against and eventual demise of apartheid.
Soweto and southern African liberation struggles
The Soweto uprising was part and parcel of the wave of anti-colonial and national liberation struggles that swept southern Africa in the 1970s. The internal struggle within South Africa was dialectically linked to the struggle cannot be separated from the struggled waged. Angolan and Mozambican liberation pushed the anti-colonial movement onto South Africa’s frontiers. Mozambican independence and the defeat of the racist South Africa armed forces in Angola had an important role in amplifying militancy among Black youth. Allister Sparks, a reporter and editor of the Rand Daily Mail, observed: “The slogans and rhetoric of the Portuguese colonial revolution swept the South African townships and stimulated a nascent rise in revolutionary consciousness.”
Of particular significance was the defeat of South African armed forces in Angola in 1975-76 by Angolan and Cuban troops. The impact of South Africa’s defeat extended to the Soweto Uprising. A principal of a Soweto high school provided compelling testimony, stating that the situation in Angola “was very much on the minds of his 700 students…They discuss it all the time and they are pleased by the developments there – it gives them hope.” The London Sunday Times observed that Cape Town’s ‘coloured’ townships gangs were adopting new names such as “Cuban Kids” and “MPLA Terrors.”
The MPLA was the Angola liberation movement that led Angola to independence from Portuguese colonialism, forming the first government of an Independent Angola, a government that the racist South African state sought to overthrow through an armed invasion.
Perhaps, the most poignant illustration of this influence was a placard used during the Soweto march. It simply stated: “It happened in Angola. Why not here??”
Nelson Mandela, in a message smuggled out of Robben Island, stated “the frontiers of white supremacy are shrinking. Mozambique and Angola are free and the war of liberation gathers force in Namibia and Zimbabwe.” The South African Communist Party declared:
“[w]hilst Angola destroyed the myth of the South African military invincibility, Soweto demolished the myth that the government’s security forces are able to destroy the people’s revolutionary spirit.”
Oliver Tambo, President of the African National Congress, unequivocally linked Angola and the Soweto Uprising:
“Terrified at the prospect of the victory of the forces of progress within the country in the aftermath and as a direct continuation of the popular victory in Angola, the Vorster regime, unleashed the bloody terror that is today symbolized by Soweto.”
Regional developments had a radicalizing effect on Black South African youth, playing a significant role in re-igniting the anti-apartheid struggle within South Africa. The uninterrupted frontal challenge to apartheid – both within and without South Africa – signalled the collapse of Pretorian regional hegemony. Consequently, the apartheid regime’s existence and survival now rested in the first and final instance on state violence and repression; its domination was primarily exercised through the militarization of the state, townships and the region; in short, the racist South African state waged a regional war of terror whose human toll can be measured in the hundreds of thousands of lives prematurely cut short and billions of dollars of economic damage.
This reign of terror was brought to an end by the heroic peoples of southern Africa, their Cuban internationalist allies and the global anti-apartheid movement. In this struggle the students of Soweto made a singular contribution.