On This Day

soweto uprising, soweto riots, soweto rebellion
Associated Press
Part of the crowd of 10,000 who took part in bloody riots in Soweto, June 16, 1976.

On This Day: Soweto Uprising Begins With Violence During Student Protest

June 16, 2011 06:00 AM
by Denis Cummings
On June 16, 1976, South African police fired on student protesters in Soweto, sparking widespread riots that awakened the dormant anti-apartheid movement.

Protest Turns to Riot in Soweto

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In the mid-1970s, apartheid was firmly entrenched in South Africa. Leaders of anti-apartheid movements had been imprisoned or forced from the country following the 1960 banning of the African National Congress, leaving little organized internal opposition to the government. This changed after the Soweto uprising of June 1976.

The Soweto uprising, also referred to as the Soweto riots or Soweto rebellion, began as a student protest against an act mandating that students learn Afrikaans, which South African blacks saw as the language of their oppressors.

Beginning in April 1976, many students in Soweto, an overwhelmingly black section of Johannesburg, started boycotting school. A group then organized a mass protest for June 16; that morning, thousands of students began walking to the rally’s meeting place, the Orlando soccer stadium.

Police attempted to stop the peaceful march by firing teargas into the crowd; some students responded by tossing back the teargas canisters or throwing stones at the police. Police released dogs into the crowd, but many of the dogs were killed with rocks and knives. As the students continued to march forward, Col. Johannes Kleingeld, the station commander of the Orlando Police Station, fired into the crowd, and other officers followed.
Two students, 16-year-old Hasting Ndlovu and 13-year-old Hector Pieterson, were killed by police fire. A photo of Pieterson’s dying body being carried away from the chaos became the symbol of the Soweto uprising.

The students, soon joined by older Sowetans, began rioting and attacking “anything that symbolized the state or white power,” recalled student leader Oupa Moloto to reporter Raymond Whitaker. They destroyed and looted buildings, smashed cars, set fires and tossed stones. Two white people, including social worker Dr. Melville Edelstein, were beaten to death that day.

The rioting spread to other townships in South African and continued for three days. In Soweto, police and paramilitary groups continued to fire teargas and live ammunition into the crowds.

Eventually the rioting subsided, but violence between students and police continued in all parts of South Africa; by February 1977, nearly 600 people had been killed in such violence, according to the government’s numbers, though “recent research showed that at least 3,000 people died,” writes Michigan State University’s African Studies Center. Additionally, thousands of students were imprisoned.

The Uprising and Its Effect on Apartheid Resistance

The Soweto uprising marks a significant turning point in the history of South Africa. It spurred the youth of South Africa to become active in the anti-apartheid movement, either by organizing resistance within the country or joining exiles in the armed struggle. Together with trade unions and liberation organizations like the ANC and Pan Africanist Congress, they formed the heart of the movement that would eventually topple apartheid in the early 1990s.

Ahmed Kathrada, a veteran ANC leader who was imprisoned in 1964, explains the uprising’s effect: “Especially after our sentence in 1964, the rest of the ‘60s was fear among the people ... But come ‘76, when the students of Soweto came into the streets unarmed and they were killed in the hundreds-nobody knows how many of them were killed-that changed history. Fear was now driven out.”

The uprising also provoked international condemnation of the South African government and support for the black resistance movement. “Last week’s rioting made it clear that South Africa, as well as neighboring white-ruled Rhodesia, must sooner or later-preferably sooner-adjust to ever growing black demands for justice and equality,” wrote Time.

Background: Causes of the Riots

The Soweto uprising was the result of decades of repressive and unequal measures passed by the apartheid government; the Afrikaans language act, explains University of the Witwatersrand history professor Phil Bonner, “provided the spark for the explosion.” 

There were also social and economic trends that contributed to the uprising, including the black consciousness ideology that grew in the early ‘70s. “Black consciousness marked a radical break with the resignation, the fear and the apathy of the 1960s,” writes Bonner. “One of its main contributions was the injection a new kind of courage and self-assertion among its members—a kind of courage which would help them to brave assault and torture, and which would lead them to refuse to be intimidated, whatever the threat.”

Historical Context: Apartheid

After winning the 1948 elections, the white Afrikaner National Party moved to consolidate its hold on power with the introduction of racially discriminatory measures known collectively as apartheid. Learn more about the history of apartheid with the Apartheid Museum’s Understanding Apartheid page for teachers and students.

Related Topic: Sharpeville

The Soweto uprising recalled a similar event 16 years earlier, when South African police opened fire on black protesters in Sharpeville township, killing 69 and injuring hundreds. The Sharpeville massacre sparked demonstrations and violence across the country, leading the government to ban the African National Congress and the Pan Africanist Congress.
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