Soweto, June 16, 1976: Black Township Pupils Vs. Settler Colonial Apartheid

Contributors:

Published

This sixth and last contribution addresses a crucial moment of the Black struggle against the apartheid in what Tshepo Madlingozi calls “the country with no name.” Durban-based architecture graduate Terrence Mkhwanazi associates here a short text to one of his brilliant cartography of the 1976 Soweto Uprising. 

Article published in The Funambulist 28 (March-April 2020) Our Battles. Click here to access the rest of the issue.

About four and a half decades ago, students were already at the heart of South African politics, and new organizations and movements were articulating a strong critique of the apartheid social order. Their politics were frequently expressed through protests. In some years, they reshaped politics in South Africa. Previously unimaginable and often repressed ideas emerged in the course of these protests, and formed the basis of new political organizations. New types of activists became visible — not just by students, but also by workers. New political identities were formed, and new alliances became possible.

On the morning of June 16, 1976, numerous Black school children led a series of protests and demonstrations in the streets of Soweto, Johannesburg, in response to the policies of the Apartheid government such as the Bantu Education Act of 1953 and the Afrikaans Medium Decree of 1974 — which was deeply resented by the Black population and considered the immediate cause for the Uprising. The Afrikaans Medium Decree was to force all Black schools to use Afrikaans and English as the language of instruction, and indigenous languages at a lower level. 

With the growth of resentment and rise of political consciousness, partly thanks to the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM), South African Students’ Movement (SASM), and the formation of the South African Students Organisation (SASO) supplemented by growing anti-Apartheid energy within the youth, students formed an action committee.

On Sunday June 13, 1976, hundreds of students of several schools from across Soweto gathered at the Donaldson Community Centre in Orlando, Soweto. According to Motapanyane, this was organized by SASM, to discuss the necessity of “a mass demonstration from the Soweto students as a whole.” During the course of the meeting, he recalled: “We decided to have a committee that would take charge of the whole thing” (Sechaba, 1977).

It was decided that this committee — named simply the “Action Committee” — would consist of an executive elected at the meeting, as well as two further members from each of the schools in Soweto. Tsietsi Mashinini, the leader of the SASM branch at Morris Isaacson High School, was elected to the Committee’s executive and suggested that a demonstration be held three days later, on Wednesday June 16.

On Tuesday June 15, the Action Committee held a brief meeting to ensure that the march had a schedule. The primary concern was that “if some schools left prematurely, they would get cut off from the rest” (Alan Brooks and Jeremy Brickhill, Whirlwind, 1980). Each school was therefore to be assigned a schedule and route. According to the Cillié Commission’s report, three streams were identified, moving from Morris Isaacson, Naledi and Sekano-Ntoane schools. Others would join as they passed, and all would congregate outside the Orlando West High School before moving on to the Orlando Stadium to demonstrate against the government’s directives.