Every year on June 16, South Africa commemorates the Soweto Uprising, often known as the “16 June” events, which occurred on that date in 1976. Thousands of Sowetan students protested the addition of Afrikaans (their oppressors’ language) as a language alongside English, but other forces were also at work.
The police opened fire on them as they protested. According to most reports, 12-year-old pupil Hector Pietersen was the first casualty of the rebellion. One of the most memorable and troubling images to emerge from the revolt is of Pietersen’s lifeless body being carried by 18-year-old Mbuyisa Makhubo. However, a photograph captured by photojournalist Sam Nzima helped galvanize the globe against apartheid, eventually bringing the brutal rule to an end.
At least 176 Black students, including Pieterson, were killed during the revolt, and South Africans remember them on June 16 each year, commemorating the role they played in the country’s freedom from apartheid rule.
The Uprising in Soweto
Historians have established that the Bantu Education Act of 1953, and its implementation by the Apartheid-led government, was also a factor in the protests on this day in 1976. For decades, Black South Africans were segregated and subjected to the bigotry that was politically sanctioned by the ruling party.
The Bantu Education Act was implemented in January 1954, making it mandatory for Black students to attend government schools and learn topics approved by the apartheid authorities in English and Afrikaans.
Then, in 1974, Afrikaans became compulsory in schools. Afrikaans is not only the colonial oppressors’ language, but it also evolved from the Dutch spoken by South Africa’s earliest European immigrants. Antoinette Sithole, 15, would have none of it.
“Obviously, physical science is incredibly tough on its own,” Sithole told Time in 2016. “We’re going to do the identical subject in Afrikaans that you’re struggling with in English?” This makes no sense.”
Sithole and 20,000 other Soweto high school students planned to stage a protest. “We were a little terrified, you know, but we already felt free.” It was as if they were saying, ‘Now we are taking the streets of Soweto with a message.’”
Sithole ironed her school uniform and packed banners in her school bag the night before the protest. Her younger brother Pieterson stood nearby and observed. He was born in 1963 and was not meant to be at the demonstration, but he ended up there.
On June 16, 1976, 10,000 to 20,000 students marched, sang, and waved placards with the help of the Soweto Students Representative Council’s Action Committee and Black Consciousness Movement (BCM) groups to protest language inclusion, which had been months in the making. The marchers intended to rally at Orlando Stadium, which was at the end of their route.
Police confronted them along the route, firing tear gas and then bullets at the students. The cops were highly armed and unleashed attack dogs on the throng of students that were stoned to death.
The cops fatally shot Black schoolchild Pieterson as the protest march turned rowdy and started a riot. According to South African History Online, a postmortem proved that Pieterson was killed by a shot fired directly at him, rather than a bullet “ricocheting off the ground” as the police stated.
Hastings Ndlovu, another kid, is thought to have been shot first, but he died later. Pieterson is most known for the shot captured by photojournalist Nzima, which sparked outrage around the world. Nzima, 42, worked for The World, a newspaper written by Blacks for Blacks.
“I saw a child fall down.” Under a hail of bullets, I dashed forward to get the shot. The march had been peaceful, and when the children were forced to disperse, they began chanting Nkosi Sikelele. “The police were told to shoot,” Nzima explained.
Pieterson became the uprising’s iconic image and the event’s symbol. The image of Pieterson’s lifeless body being carried through the streets of Soweto drew international attention, prompting governments in numerous other nations to denounce the South African government for the shootings.
The Soweto event drew the backing of whites in Johannesburg, who marched in protest of police killing defenseless youngsters. In a united march, black and white South Africans marched together. Over 600 persons were estimated to have died before the end of the year.
The uprising would give birth to the African National Congress (ANC) and other anti-apartheid organizations in the country. The world community condemned the South African government’s atrocities on children and demanded penalties against the country, ultimately bringing apartheid to an end.
In the 1990s, a Pieterson memorial was erected in Orlando, Soweto, just two blocks from where Hector was shot and killed. On June 16, 2002, the Hector Pieterson Museum opened behind the memorial site.
Sithole was devastated by her brother’s death, but she told Time that his now-iconic photograph aided the black freedom fight. “We never imagined that would be the tipping moment. The protest was about Afrikaans in the classroom. However, it sparked concerns in other countries that this is not correct. “How can children be slain simply for asserting their rights?”