South Africa: Overcoming Apartheid


Soweto Student Uprising


As the mid-year exams approached, boycotts took place in many Soweto schools (Ndlovu). It was around that time that the older students of the South African Students Movement (SASM) decided to organize a mass protest in Soweto. In a 1977 interview, Tebello Motapanyane, then secretary general of SASM, provided an account of the action committee's decision to launch the protest:
We took a decision to inform the staff that we totally reject the half-yearly examinations and were not going to write the exams until our demands were met. The Naledi branch called a meeting under SASM on Sunday, June 13 where it was actually decided that there should be positive action from all the high schools and secondary schools in Soweto. We discussed Afrikaans and how to make the government aware that we opposed their decision. The delegates decided that there should be a mass demonstration from the Soweto students as a whole. [Read full interview.]
The brutal killing of the school children on June 16, 1976, shocked the international community. Newspapers across the world published Sam Nzima's photograph of a dying Hector Peterson on their front page. In the meantime, South African security forces, equipped with armored tanks and live ammunition, poured into Soweto. Their instructions were to shoot to kill, for the sake of "law and order." By nightfall another eleven more people had been shot dead (Bonner). Students in Soweto responded by pelting the police with stones and attacking what they regarded to be symbols of the apartheid government. Across much of Soweto government buildings and liquor stores were looted and burned.

On the second day of the uprising, the violence spread to African townships in the West Rand and Johannesburg. At the University of Witwatersrand, police broke up a group of 400 white students who had been marching to express their solidarity with the pupils of Soweto. On the third day, police began placing youth protestors in jail; students later testified to being tortured while imprisoned. What began as a local demonstration against the Afrikaans language decree quickly turned into a countrywide youth uprising against apartheid oppression. Kgati Sathekge, current Director for Communications and Marketing for the Ministry of Social Development, was one of thousands of students from Atterridgeville, an African township near Pretoria, who took part in the protests in that region. In his 2006 interview, he explained:
We could not accept that type of behavior . . . personally it was a great shock. We started organizing protests . . . On June 21 when students came to school we mobilized them and said we're not going to go to school that day, we'll engage in protest marches throughout the township . . . Different government offices were targeted and burned down including . . .buildings seen as symbols of oppression [such as] government stores, bottle (alcohol) stores, beer halls. [Watch Sathekge interview segment.] [Watch second interview segment with Sathekge
The police shootings and the defiant response of African students in Soweto emboldened youth throughout the country to wage protests. Students in Port Elizabeth mobilized in their schools, leading to a conflict between the police and a crowd of 4,000 high school students and township residents en route to the local soccer stadium that left eight residents dead. Shepi Mati, who arrived in Port Elizabeth at the end of 1976 to attend high school, recalls the violence and tension of that time:
On any given day, you would just hear this sound – it was a very ominous sound – you could feel it in the air. And suddenly there would be a Caspir that comes past, a police armored car – woosh – throwing tear gas or shooting as it goes past. This was really my welcome to Port Elizabeth. [View Mati interview segment.
 
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