Mon. Jan 18th, 2021

Youth Day 2019: Why South Africans commemorate 16 June

Youth Day 2019Youth Day is dedicated to the children of South Africa. Here is what the youth fought for on 16 June 1976 and why we commemorate the day.

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Unlike the global and more general celebrations of youth and their role in society, Youth Day in South Africa has an extraordinary historical significance dating back to 16 June 1976.

It serves as an opportunity to honour the 176 students who gave up their lives to make freedom for all a possibility. While the estimated death toll is at 176, it could be higher as not all cases were reported accurately:

The June 1976 death toll was 176, at least 23 deaths occured on the first day. Thousands were injured. The police ordered township ­hospitals to report anyone receiving treatment for gunshot wounds, but doctors listed the wounds as abcesses.

Youth Day falls on 16 June, in remembrance of the beginning of the 1976 Uprising which started in Soweto and spread across the country.

The 1976 Uprising and the mobilisation of the youth in the years that followed served as a catalyst that began a chain reaction that would ultimately topple the apartheid government.

Pre-apartheid education in South Africa

The issue of Afrikaans becoming a medium of instruction in schools was part of broader discontent with the Bantu Education Policy of the time. The efforts of the government were designed to support the apartheid society.

According to SA History, it is mistakenly understood that there was “no pre-apartheid educational marginalisation of Black South Africans”. A system of segregation was introduced long before the 1948 elections:

While white schooling was free, compulsory and expanding, black education was sorely neglected. Financial underprovision and an urban influx led to gravely insufficient schooling facilities, teachers and educational materials as well as student absenteeism or non-enrolment.

SA History

Youth Day: What happened on 16 June 1976?

Between 3 000 and 10 000 students, mobilised by the Students Movement Action Committee and the Black Consciousness Movement, gathered to demonstrate the government’s directive to make Afrikaans compulsory in schools.

The apartheid government sought to create a population of labourers, workers and servants by controlling education, movement and employment opportunities for black South Africans. H.F. Verwoerd is known for saying:

“There is no place for [the African] in the European community above the level of certain forms of labour. It is of no avail for him to receive a training which has as its aim, absorption in the European community.”

When the thousands of youth gathered in Soweto in 1976 to march peacefully to a rally at Orlando Stadium, they were met by heavily armed police.

The police attempted to disperse the march by firing teargas and later live ammunition into the crowd.

The aftermath of 16 June 1976?

The uprisings tragically ended with hundreds of young people killed by the apartheid government on 16 June 1976. Including Hector Peterson.

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Antoinette Sithole, sister of Hector Peterson who was murdered by South African police thirty years ago, poses alongside the iconic image by Sam Nzima at the Hector Peterson Memorial in Soweto. This photograph has been called ‘the beginning of the end of apartheid’ as it helped to mobilise the world agains the injustices of apartheid. In the original image she is running alongside student activist Mbuyisa Makhubu, who was forced to go into exile as a result of the photograph. She now works as a guide at the Hector Peterson Museum. Photo by Gideon Mendel/Corbis via Getty Images

However, the iconic and heartbreaking images of police firing at peacefully demonstrating students exposed the brutality of the apartheid government to the world.

It increased foreign support for the struggle against apartheid and strengthened exiled liberation movements; which received new recruits fleeing political persecution at home.

Also read – Youth Day in South Africa: Six essential things you need to know

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