40 Years On, the Spirit of the 1976 Soweto Uprising Lives

Recent student protests not only find inspiration in the 1976 movement, but serve as a continuation of the struggle.

By Shir’a Jeenah and Nick Rodrigo

On the morning of Wednesday June 16, 1976 Hector Pieterson was shot dead on the corner of Moema and Vilakazi Street in the Black township of Soweto. He was demonstrating, with thousands of other students, against the introduction of Afrikaans as a compulsory medium of teaching and learning. His death was the first of hundreds that day and would serve to instigate a large-scale revolt by Black African youths in townships across apartheid South Africa.

The apartheid police were only able to quell the uprising by 1980, however by then it was too late—the white minority regime would not know calm in the townships again. Fatima Shabodien, who was only four at the time, remembers the impact it had on a generation of students a decade later—“the 1976 generation had laid the foundation for us as radical agents for change, 1976 was significant because it represented a moment of radicalisation of the youth, and an open declaration of war between us and the apartheid state.” During the late ’80s, the renewed student movements, in alliance with the trade unionists again rendered the townships, reservoirs of cheap black labour, ungovernable. Towards the twilight years of apartheid, it was young, Black South Africans, armed with little more than Molotov cocktails and rocks who showcased to the world the brutish reality of Apartheid.

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the Soweto uprising, with festivals and commemorative events taking part across South Africa. Many thousands danced and sang in the iconic Orlando stadium, where President Zuma commented on the advances made by South Africa since the fall of apartheid. However, it was in the township of Soweto itself that the memory of that fateful day had the strongest resonance.

Along Vilakazi Street, where the former home of Nelson Mandela is located, South Africans, young and old, decked marched in their school uniforms. Don, a local student from Soweto shared his thoughts with us: “I believe the youth has always had more power, without us there is no power in this country.” Local artist, Sidney, who was in primary school at the time, remembers how the older secondary school children came to him and his classmates to inform them of the protest, “we were aware that there was going to be a peaceful march, but then the whole of Soweto was on fire.” Sidney sells poignant papier-mâché figurines of the heroes of Soweto, including the iconic image of the fallen body of Hector Pieterson, and his distraught sister. His work was just one of the many innovative pieces of artwork which the township has become renown for. One of the major issues, which drove the June 16 protests, was the concept of language within education, especially the controversial introduction of Afrikaans. As a local street vendor noted to us “when you talk to someone in their own language you get deep with them, but if I make you speak my language, I control you.” South Africa’s Black youth, since 1976, have been conscious of their relationship to a colonised education system—something which prompted the recent resurgence of South African student movements.

The fury of the 1976 generation that momentarily took over the streets of Soweto was inspired, largely, by the Black Consciousness Movement of South Africa founded by Stephen Biko who was murdered in detention by apartheid police on 12 September 1977. Armed with the ideology of Black consciousness, students resisted and revolted against the Bantu Education system which sought to manufacture subjects fit to be absorbed into and become functionaries of the racist, apartheid state. Over the past couple of years, in the spirit of the class of 1976, South African students—this time in universities—raised their voices against what was deemed as an education system that perpetuates the inferiorization and servitude of native, Black South Africans in a similar fashion to that of the institutionalised Bantu Education of the past.

In March 2015 at the University of Cape Town, students demanded that the statue of prominent apartheid figure Cecil John Rhodes be removed as it represented and celebrated a racist legacy painful for Black students. Months later, in October of the same year, the Fees Must Fall movement was launched at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg—spreading across universities countrywide—which voiced the primary demand of scrapping the proposed 10 percent fee increase. These movements, however, were not merely about the removal of a statue or the zero increase in fees, but instead, represented a broader narrative calling for the complete decolonization of education in South Africa. This sentiment is consistent with the feelings that brought the students of 1976 into the streets of Soweto. As one of the leaders of the Fees Must Fall movement Shaeera Kalla notes, “We highlighted 1976 and our role today in such a way as to reignite the passion and bravery of the 1976 generation.”

Black consciousness scholars such as Frantz Fanon and Stephen Biko became major ideologues of the revolt, which demanded an overhaul of all facets of university life considered racist and consistent with a Bantu style of education. Demands for no fee increase became demands for free, quality education so that Blacks impoverished by a racist system could have access to education. The demand, however, did not end there. Students insisted that simply placing Black bodies in the university is counter-productive if the educational structure aims to create a certain kind of student that fits the Eurocentric mould perpetuating white supremacy and capitalism. There was a demand for buildings commemorating apartheid figures to be renamed, more Black staff to be employed. Most importantly the movement demanded a complete reworking of the curriculum from that which holds Western ideas as the standard to that which values and promotes ideas of resistance from the global south.

The recent student protests did not only find inspiration in the 1976 movement but served as a continuation of their struggle. Black students have become disillusioned with the complacency of the state and educational institutions. In the quest towards inclusivity and promotion of knowledge that does not aim to maintain the status quo, they have resurrected the spirit and radical consciousness of 1976 and fused it with their own experiences in post Apartheid South Africa. Like the black consciousness movement of 1976, the current student movements are in a current state of evolutionary flux. The evolution of this mentality is in the hands of the students who have always been at the forefront of shaping South Africa’s destiny. As Kalla insists, “The youth must look at 1976 and remember that it was young people who represented that tipping point in our struggle.”