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Soweto uprising proved turning point against apartheid

Published on 15/06/2016

On June 16, 1976, thousands of black students spilled into the streets of Soweto against a government order that South African schools could only teach in the Afrikaans language used by whites.

Forty years on, it is still unclear how many people died that day, but within a few months, at least 500 people were dead as a result of reprisals.

Those images of violence and death brought the injustices of the apartheid regime to the world’s attention and marked a turning point in the anti-apartheid struggle.

As protests spread across South Africa, a new era of black activism emerged that eventually led to the collapse of the regime and Nelson Mandela’s election as president in 1994.

Every year since that election, South Africa has commemorated the students’ sacrifice.

Thursday, the 40th anniversary of the protest, President Jacob Zuma will address the nation from the township where it all began.

Imposing Afrikaans to the black majority – which spoke it badly or very little — “was a strategy by the apartheid regime to hamper our progress, education wise, so that we wouldn’t achieve anything,” Joy Rabotapi, a student protester in 1976, told AFP.

Dan Montsitsi, a student leader who was there that day, said the march had been planned for months.

But “our parents did not know about it, our teachers did not know about it, even the police did not know about it,” he told AFP.

“We were amazed with the number of students that we had been able to put in the streets to protest against Afrikaans,” he said.

The students, most of whom were in their school uniforms, carried placards reading: “Afrikaans stinks”, “To hell with Afrikaans” and “Afrikaans needs to be abolished”.

“We were singing and dancing just at the corner of Orlando West High” Montsitsi said. “Suddenly, the police came.”

“They did not talk to us to begin to negotiate,” he said. “They gave us five minutes to displace. Of course we refused to displace.”

Montsitsi said the police released a dog into the crowd, which ended up “dead at the feet of the police”.

“The police were very angry obviously and they decided they would use teargas.”

“We began to attack with stones and they started to shoot,” Montsitsi said. “Apartheid police shot at us, mostly at the back when we were running away.”

The first to fall was Hector Pieterson, a 13-year-old boy.

The black-and-white photo of his body being carried away by a student in tears, Pieterson’s clearly distressed sister alongside him, became the iconic image of the Soweto uprising.

The photo, broadcast all over the world, came to define South Africa’s liberation struggle.

“We did not expect that somebody could just die from marching with a fist clinch,” said survivor Trofomo Sono.

“I saw some boys trying to shield themselves from the bullets with dust bins lids.”

– ‘Country on fire’ –

The next day, “the whole country was on fire,” Montsitsi said. “Our own community no longer feared the police, no longer feared the Afrikaners. They were prepared to fight on.”

The world jolted into action and in 1977, the United Nations imposed a mandatory arms embargo against South Africa.

Granny Seape, a student at Fort Hare near Cape Town at the time, travelled to the capital Johannesburg and heard about the Soweto uprising.

On arriving in Soweto, “we could see the buildings on fire and the smoke,” she told AFP.

She immediately tried to locate her brother, Hastings Ndlovu, a 17-year-old student in the township.

“We looked for him and found him after 5 days at the morgue, in a pile of bodies,” Seape said.

Among the first victims killed, the boy was shot dead between the eyes.

Seape said she was harassed by the police and decided to go into exile. She wouldn’t return to her native country until Mandela walked out of prison in 1990.

“I have a great respect for those kids,” said Reverend Frank Chikane, who survived an assassination attempt by poisoning during apartheid.

“Those kids changed South Africa,” he said. “The South Africa we have today, it is because of them.”

“South Africans are able now to vote,” Montsitsi said. But “transformation in South Africa is very very slow.”

Trofomo, who is unemployed, doesn’t hide his bitterness.

“There are times where poverty makes you think some people might have sacrificed their life for nothing,” he said.

More than a quarter of the working population, half under 35, remain unemployed.

“Overall, you still say it was worth it, because here we are,” Trofomo added. “There is democracy.”