Soweto Student Uprising

Protest was not limited to African students, as Yusuf Omar describes from his perspective in an Indian township of Johannesburg: "It's a virtual world when it comes to emotion … We weren't seeing the truth, but we got it from comrades… In our own schools, we did what we could." [Watch Omar video segment]

In the Cape, Coloured and African high school students expressed solidarity with students in Soweto, while black students at the University of the Western Cape boycotted their classes for a week and clashed with police and university authorities. Demonstrations also took place in rural boarding schools and black University campuses all over the country (Brooks and Brickhill; Karis and Carter 172-73).

To sustain resistance, leaders of the Soweto Students Representative Council (SSRC, founded in August 1976) decided to involve adults in the protests in order to build inter-generational unity and to strike an economic blow against apartheid. From August through December 1976, SSRC leaders organized a number of campaigns, including stay-at-homes (short strikes) for adult workers, marches to Johannesburg, anti-drinking campaigns, mass funerals (which became politically charged and often turned into protest rallies), and a Christmas consumer boycott. In preparation for the stay-at-homes, the SSRC printed flyers urging adults to participate. One read, "...the scrapping of BANTU EDUCATION, the RELEASE of Prisoners detained during the demos [demonstrations], and the overthrowal of oppression, we the students call on our parents to stay at home and not go to work from Monday" (Karis and Carter 591; Hirson 248-61). Sporadic clashes between students and police continued into 1977; by the end of the year, the government acknowledged that nearly 600 people had been killed, although recent research showed that at least 3,000 people died. Thousands more were imprisoned and many black South Africans fled into exile or joined the armed struggle.

The student uprising marked a decisive turning point in the history of the anti-apartheid struggle. Roseberry Sonto, an activist in Cape Town at the time, regarded the student uprising as a "gift" that reinvigorated organizing efforts: "That was after which we started lots of things like bus boycotts, rent boycotts, meat boycotts - all kinds of boycotts just tp drive the point home." [Watch Sonto video segment]

The student uprising of 1976 was recognized as a watershed by the previous generation of activists. Ahmed Kathrada, convicted in the Rivonia Trial and imprisoned on Robben Island since 1964, learned of the student activism only in August when student leaders began to be sent to the Island. Then he and other prisoners understood its significance:
Especially after our sentence in 1964, the rest of the ‘60s was fear among the people… End of ’69, the Black Consciousness movement came in, and the beginning of the ‘70s there was a revival of the trade union movement, so that gave us hope that things are changing. But come ’76, when the students of Soweto came into the streets unarmed and they were killed in the hundreds – nobody knows how many of them were killed – that changed history. Fear was now driven out. [Watch Kathrada video segment]
The politicization and activism of young South Africans in Soweto and beyond galvanized the liberation movements and set in motion a series of transformations that ultimately led to the demise of apartheid (Karis and Carter 180-84).

AODL African Studies Center MSU NEH Matrix