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.
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.
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.